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How Should We Define ‘Atheism’?

Dictionary Series - Religion: atheism

NOTE: The following post is an excerpt from the recently released Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2013), co-edited by atheist philosopher Michael Ruse and Catholic theologian, and Strange Notions contributor, Dr. Stephen Bullivant.
 


 

Atheism and Ambiguity

 
The precise definition of ‘atheism’ is both a vexed and vexatious issue. (Incidentally, the same applies to its more-or-less equivalents in other languages: Atheismusathéisme,ateismi, etc.) Etymologically, atheism is derived from the classical Greek a- (normally meaning ‘not’ or ‘without’) and theos (‘god’). Its first extant appearance in English occurs in the mid-sixteenth century, as a translation of Plutarch’s atheotēs (Buckley 1987: 9). Even from its earliest beginnings in Greek and English, however, atheism/atheotēs admitted of a variety of competing, and confusing, definitions — often bearing no straightforward relationship to its strict etymology. While these lie outside the scope of the present chapter, some of the more interesting definitions and applications are discussed elsewhere in this volume.

Even today, however, there is no clear, academic consensus as to how exactly the term should be used. For example, consider the following definitions of ‘atheism’ or ‘atheist’, all taken from serious scholarly writings published in the last ten years:

  1. ‘Atheism [...] is the belief that there is no God or gods’(Baggini 2003:3)
  2. ‘At its core, atheism [...] designates a position (not a “belief”) that includes or asserts no god(s)’ (Eller 2010: 1)
  3. ‘An atheist is someone without a belief in God; he or she need not be someone who believes that God does not exist’ (Martin 2007: 1)
  4. ‘An atheist does not believe in the god that theism favours’ (Cliteur 2009: 1)
  5. ‘By “atheist,” I mean precisely what the word has always been understood to mean — a principled and informed decision to reject belief in God’ (McGrath 2004: 175)

Of course, these definitions share certain features: all regard atheism as relating, in a negative way, to a thing or things called ‘god’, and all but one describe this relationship in terms of belief. But beyond this, it is obvious that these authors are not all talking about the same thing at all. The first and second include gods; the final three specify only one (which the final two give a capital G). The fourth definition, moreover, restricts this scope even further. Definitions two and three regard atheism as simply being the absence of a certain belief; the rest, contrariwise, see it as implying a definite belief. Moreover, the fifth definition also demands a level of intellectual — and perhaps also emotional — conviction, over and above simple believing.

Oxford Handbook of AtheismThough our focus in this chapter is on scholarly usage(s), it is worth pointing out that everyday speech is no more monosemic. This is, perhaps, partly to be expected: after all, English is very much a global language, and is the native tongue of approaching 400 million people. Nevertheless, even relatively homogeneous groups often display a notable lack of uniformity. For instance, a 2007 study of over 700 students — all at the same British university, at the same time, with a clear majority being a similar age and from the same country — found that, from a list of commonly encountered definitions of ‘atheist’, the most popular choice was ‘A person who believes that there is no God or gods’ (Bullivant 2008). This was, however, chosen by only 51.8 per cent of respondents: hardly an overwhelming consensus. 29.1 per cent opted instead for ‘A person who is convinced that there is no God or gods’, 13.6 per cent took the broader ‘A person who lacks a belief in a God or gods’, and 0.6 per cent answered ‘Don’t know’. Thirty-five respondents, eight of whom had already affirmed one of the suggested meanings, offered their own definitions. These included:

  • ‘A person who lacks a belief in supernatural forces, without suggesting that they might exist’.
  • ‘Someone who denies the validity of using the word “God” to indicate anything (other than a concept) which might be said to “exist” ’.
  • ‘A person who has no belief in any deity and finds that religion is not an important part of their life’.
  • ‘Someone who isn’t a member of any religion that believes in one God’.

Once again, despite general similarities, it is clear that the word is used and understood in a wide variety of different ways, even in so relatively uniform a group. (Note too the introduction of wider concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘supernatural forces’, rather than confining themselves to just God/gods, into these definitions.) Thinking more widely, it is also worth noting that both ‘atheism’ and ‘atheist’ can carry a considerable number of overtones and connotations, positive and negative: even among people agreeing on a given abstract definition, calling someone an ‘atheist’ might well communicate very different things in, say, McCarthy-era Dallas, post-communist Krakow, or twenty-first-century London.

The Babel Handbook of Atheism?

 
It is important to recognize that plurality of usage, as sketched above, need not imply that some scholars are right and others are wrong. Atheism simply possesses no single, objective definition: it can be used correctly in a number of related, sometimes overlapping, and often mutually exclusive ways. This is not necessarily a problem, so long as one is always clear how exactly each author is deploying the term. (There is also a valid case to be made for certain disciplines to use the word in their own, highly specialized senses.) That is not to say, however, that all definitions are equally useful: a too-narrow definition may inadvertently airbrush out all kinds of interesting potential data, while a too-broad one may capture a large number of ‘atheisms’ with few meaningful connections between them. Alternatively, a definition that is too idiosyncratic, or culturally bound, may obviate comparisons with other work ostensibly on the same subject. Furthermore, and quite obviously, the sheer lack of agreement creates a great deal of, at best, time-consuming effort, and at worst, hopeless confusion, for all concerned. There is, therefore, a great deal of utility to be gained from finding a generally agreed-upon, serviceable (if not perfect), scholarly definition of the word atheism.

The merits of this may be grasped if one imagines this Handbook — drawing together dozens of scholars, from widely diverse disciplines, and several continents — as a microcosm of the scholarly study of atheism. Without a ‘standard’ definition, outlined and explained in a chapter such as this, each contributor would need to explicate his or her own definition at the beginning of their chapter — or else, as happens all too often, their readers would simply have to infer quite how he or she is using the term. The reader, of course, would need to remember this definition throughout the duration of the chapter, before consciously relearning and re-remembering what would probably (but not necessarily) be a different definition for the next chapter. With different authors defining the term in different ways, like-for-like comparisons between chapters would become next to impossible: the ‘atheists’ whose psychological tendencies one learns about in one chapter may well be a different (and possibly mutually exclusive) set of ‘atheists’ whose demographic trends are charted in the next. Such a collection would not, it must be said, be without value: each individual chapter could well constitute an exemplary and illuminating piece of scholarship. Furthermore, every single one of its definitions of atheism might be perfectly valid (if not necessarily, for the reasons mentioned above, optimally useful): clearly and precisely defined, with a weight of historical usage behind it, and having sufficient consonance with popular usage. And yet, viewed as a whole, The Babel Handbook of Atheism would be a frustrating morass of contradictions and cross-purposes. Such, writ large, is the state of the scholarly study of atheism today.

Throughout this volume, by contrast, and unless otherwise stated, ‘atheism’ is defined as an absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods. As with most mainstream definitions of the term, it is simply the fruit of two basic decisions: the meaning and scope of a-, and the meaning and scope of -theism. Neither decision, of course, is either straightforward or uncontroversial. So let me explain, explore, and defend each of them in turn, while giving special attention to the question of utility.

a- is for…?

 
According to this definition, a- signifies a simple absence, or lack, or ‘state of being without’. In Greek grammar, this usage of a- is called a ‘privative a’ (or alpha privativum/privans), and features in such English words as amoral, asexual, anarchy, and anaerobic. Hence anaerobic respiration occurs in the absence of oxygen, but it is not, in itself, necessarily opposed to oxygen; anarchy is a principally state of lawlessness, rather than a state of denying or opposing the existence of laws (although individual anarchists, having elaborated an ideology from the concept, may or may not do just that). By analogy, atheism thus becomes an absence of something called ‘theism’. Importantly, it does not require a specific denial or rejection of, nor any animus against, this ‘theism’ — although, also importantly, it does not rule it out.

While this interpretation of atheism’s a- is indeed consonant with its Greek etymology, that is not, in itself, a strong reason for advocating it. Actual Greek usage, in fact, was itself rather variable. For example, Liddell and Scott define atheotēs as ‘god-lessness’ (1869: 27), citing the comment in Plato’s dialogue The Statesman about those ‘impelled to atheotēs and to vaunting pride and injustice by the drive of an evil nature’ (308e; quoted from Hamilton and Cairns 1961: 1081). While this is indeed an instance of alpha privativum (being ‘without’ god in the sense of being ‘godless’ or ‘ungodly’), the meaning intended is evidently a moral one. The same is, for example, also true in Aeschylus’ Eumenides when Orestes is described with the adjective atheos (‘atheist’). However, atheos could also connote ‘one who denies or dishonours the God’ (as used of Socrates in Plato’s Apology), a sense that goes beyond a simple, privative absence of belief. Furthermore, irrespective of its Greek descent, atheism is now an English word, and has been in use for over four and a half centuries. There is a long tradition in English of understanding atheism’s prefix as demanding, not merely an absence of theism, but instead a definite rejection of it. (Hence McGrath’s definition, quoted earlier: ‘a principled and informed decision to reject belief in God’.) As noted above, this is arguably the most usual common-speech meaning (though it is far from ubiquitous), and it is well-represented in recent scholarly literature (among others, see: Baggini 2003: 3–4; Hyman 2007: 28–9; Cliteur 2009: 1; and Walters 2010: 171).

Nevertheless, and irrespective of any etymological arguments in its favour, a strong case can be made for preferring our interpretation on the basis of scholarly utility. Defining atheism as ‘an absence of...’ permits it to function as an umbrella concept, comprising a range of significantly related positions and phenomena. These may usefully be subdivided into different categories, at different analytic levels. It is common, for example, for advocates of this kind of definition to distinguish ‘positive’ (or ‘strong’/‘hard’) and ‘negative’ (or ‘weak’/‘soft’) varieties of atheism (Martin 1990: 464). On this schema — which the Handbook adopts — ‘negative atheism’ is consonant with our basic definition of an absence. It thus includes such positions as agnosticism (in both its classical sense of a specific belief that there is insufficient evidence either to believe or disbelieve in the existence of a God or gods, and in its more popular sense of not having made up one’s mind), and the view of some linguistic philosophers that the word God is literally meaningless (see Charles Pigden’s ‘Analytic Philosophy’). Any person who does not, at present, have a belief in the existence of a God or gods is thus a negative atheist. By contrast, a ‘positive atheist’ is someone who is not only without such a belief, but holds a specific belief (which may, of course, be held with varying levels of certainty or interest) that there is no God or gods. Clearly, anyone who holds that belief — unless they are very confused — thereby is also without a belief in God’s/gods’ existence. Thus positive atheism implies negative atheism, but not vice versa. Positive atheism too may be further subdivided into various kinds: Promethean antitheism, existentialist atheism, Soviet scientific atheism, New Atheism, and so on.

To adopt a zoological metaphor, it might be helpful to think of atheism as a ‘family’, divisible into two ‘genera’ (negative and positive), each made up of various ‘species’ (agnosticism, Promethean antitheism, etc.). This taxonomic approach to atheism permits exploration of a diverse range of stances and worldviews, united by their shared absence of theism. It encompasses, for example, the positive atheisms of the humanist Bertrand Russell, the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Marxist Mao Zedong, but also the negative atheisms of the agnostic Anthony Kenny, the logical positivist A. J. Ayer, and some — but not all — of the secular ‘indifference’ of a large and increasing number of Westerners. It would also include any genuinely religious atheisms, as are sometimes identified in strands of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism (though see Jessica Frazier’s, Andrew Skilton’s, and Anne Vallely’s chapters later in this Handbook). Needless to say, the great bulk of this (coherent) richness and diversity — and with it, the potential for illuminating comparisons and correlations — is lost if atheism’s prefix is understood exclusively in the sense of a rejection and/or denial. Of course, scholars are not obliged to take into account all of atheism’s ‘endless forms’, whenever they want to write about a particular ‘genus’ or ‘species’: positive atheism, for example, is and will remain a discrete and significant focus of enquiry in itself. Nonetheless, there is clear value in being at least aware of how one’s specific topic relates to the bigger picture. One positive result, for instance, may be to reduce the data-skewing tendency of some students of religion to bifurcate people into ‘religious believers’ and ‘convinced atheists’, as though there were no possibility of anything in between.

Not insignificantly, this way of defining a- has precedents in both the writings of influential atheist writers, and in key works in the philosophical and social-scientific study of atheism (e.g., Flew 1976; Smith [1979] 1989; Martin 1990; Hiorth 2003; Hwang et al. 2009; Eller 2010). Furthermore, given the benefits of finding an agreed-upon definition among scholars of atheism (as outlined in the previous section), its recent employment in another major, multi-author reference work — The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (see Martin 2007) — is a key point in its favour.

One final comment: it is important to note that this definition of a- in terms of an ‘absence’ is intended in a wholly value-neutral, non-pejorative sense. It is not meant to imply that there is something ‘missing’ in the atheist that he or she ought either to have or to be (which is, of course, a separate question entirely). However, the possibility of the definition being (mis)taken to have negative connotations is indeed a troubling one. One might, of course, substitute ‘a lack of belief in the existence of a God or gods’ as a direct synonym. This would, moreover, lend an elegant symmetry to the corresponding definition of ‘atheist’ as ‘one who lacks a belief in the existence of a God or gods’. However, lack is susceptible to the same, or worse, kinds of misunderstanding: describing something as lacking normally implies a deficiency. Unfortunately, absence genuinely does lack such elegant symmetry when applied to the definition of ‘atheist’, creating the decidedly tortuous ‘one from whom a belief in the existence of a God or gods is absent’. Instead, it would probably be best to choose ‘one who is without a belief in the existence of a God or gods’ (which, unfortunately, results in the ludicrous, cognate definition of atheism: ‘a “without-ness” of a belief in the existence of a God or gods’). On balance, ‘absence’ for atheism and ‘without’ for atheist, while far from perfect, are probably still to be preferred.

The Meaning(s) of -theism

 
In the above discussion of a-, I have been glossing -theism with ‘belief in the existence of God or gods’. Yet, as with its companion, this too is the result of a conscious — and contentious — decision. Whereas defining a- is largely a binary affair (either it is understood as meaning ‘without’ or ‘an absence of ’, or as signifying a specific denial), -theism admits of a far wider range of credible options. So let me explain what I do and don’t mean by defining it as I have done, while once again comparing it with (and defending it against) some of its recent competitors.

Obviously, this understanding of -theism is contingent upon the individual meanings of ‘existence’ and ‘God/gods’. Equally obviously, there is no space here to give comprehensive accounts of either of these ideas. It will be helpful, though, to make a few brief remarks about ‘existence’, before commenting in more detail on the crucial category of ‘God/gods’ — upon which, as one might expect, the greatest disagreements among definers of atheism have centered.

‘Existence’ is not, perhaps, overly problematic. That is not to say that the concept does not present interesting philosophical issues and problems, but these are not specific to our current concerns. Admittedly, there are also strands within Christian theology which might want to deny, or at least qualify, the claim that God ‘exists’ (at least in the normal sense that everything within the universe is said to exist) — the influential fourth- or fifth-century theologian Pseudo-Dionysius could write that God ‘falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being’ (Luibheid and Rorem 1987: 141), for example — but this is a technical issue, beyond the scope of the present essay. That said, in the interests of precision, it is important to underline the role of the word ‘existence’ in defining atheism. Frequently, the word is omitted, resulting in definitions of (a)theism in terms simply of ‘belief in God(s)’. While this is fine as a handy abbreviation, as it stands the phrase is ambiguous: it can mean either belief that there is a God or gods, or faith/trust in God or the gods (Lash [1992] 2002: 18–21). In the vast majority of cases, including here, atheism relates only to the former sense (although an absence of that would, of course, ordinarily imply an absence of faith too). The presence of the word ‘existence’ also rules out those who might claim to ‘believe in God’, but only in some figurative, or anti-realist sense — in the same way that an adult, while not believing that Santa actually exists, might insist ‘I believe in Santa Claus!’ in order to affirm a general commitment to the magic of Christmas. These too, being without a belief in the existence of a God or gods, are still atheists on our definition.

The proposed definition draws on a conventional distinction between ‘God’ (singular, capitalized) and ‘gods’ (plural, lower case). According to this, the former normally signifies the ‘genre’ of God traditionally worshipped in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the differences between or within those traditions notwithstanding): a supreme, personal, transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent Creator. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Judeo-Christian God’, or the ‘God of Classical Theism’. ‘God’ can and does, though, also refer to the supreme beings of other monotheistic religions or belief systems — e.g., Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Neoplatonism — who may or may not conform precisely to the above description. Our second category of ‘gods’ is, however, rather harder to pin down: religious studies reference books are oddly reticent about giving a generic, non-tradition-specific definition of what a ‘god’ actually is. Certainly, most ‘gods’ are not simply multiple versions of the ‘God’ of classical theism. The Greco-Roman gods and goddesses, for example, are typically neither omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, nor transcendent (in the sense of being outside of creation). It may well be, in fact, that despite there being any number of widely accepted claimants of the epithet ‘God/god’—Nyami Nyami, Hera, Odin, Baal, Wakan Tankah, Pachacamac — there is no set of essential characteristics that all gods possess, and all non-gods do not. (Being immaterial, immortal, and possessing supernatural powers, for instance, are often also considered properties of beings not normally regarded as gods, such as demons or sprites. On this point, see below.) It may also be that our Western concept of ‘a god’ — arguably like ‘religion’ — is one that has been artificially foisted upon belief systems, and where it now sits uneasily. If so, then perhaps it would be best to adopt a Wittgensteinian ‘family resemblance model’ — such as has been proposed for defining ‘religion’ itself (e.g., Clarke and Byrne 1993) — for deciding what does or does not count as a ‘god’. This would acknowledge that there is no set of necessary and sufficient properties common to all putative ‘gods’ (thus recognizing the genuine ambiguities of the term’s real-world application), while preserving what is, after all, a useful and well-established concept.

The above considerations, while seemingly a little off-topic, are worth thinking about here. Partly because of the relative difficulties involved in defining ‘god(s)’ as opposed to ‘God’, some scholars insist on defining atheism solely in relation to monotheism, if not in fact, to one specific instance of it. Kerry Walters, for example, affirms ‘The God whose existence atheists reject is the deity worshipped by the three “Religions of the Book”: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. [...] Each of them proclaims what’s come to be known as “the God of classical theism” ’ (2010: 17). And for Paul Cliteur: ‘Atheism is concerned with one specific concept of god: the theistic god. The theistic god has a name and this is written with a capital: God’ (2009: 3). Relatedly, one commonly meets the claim that atheism’s definition is always relative to whatever form of theism happens to be dominant. In the words of Gavin Hyman: ‘atheism defines itself in terms of that which it is denying. From this it follows that if definitions and understandings of God change and vary, so too our definitions and understandings of atheism will change and vary. This further means that there will be as many varieties of atheism as there are varieties of theism. For atheism will always be a rejection, negation, or denial of a particular form of theism’ (2007: 29).

Certainly, there is some truth to this claim: positive atheism, at least, frequently expresses itself in opposition to some specific understanding of theism. In times and places where Christianity is prevalent, it would be strange to expend much energy critiquing the Neoplatonists’ One or Pharaoh Akhenaten’s sun-god Aten. And nor is it surprising that Western proponents of positive atheism should now direct their attentions to Islam, as well as to their traditional target of Christianity. But the fact that prevailing theisms condition the focus and expression of certain types of atheism, need not mean that either they or atheism in general have no wider referent. Even when specific attention is understandably given to one type of theism, this is normally accompanied and motivated by a general disavowal of all gods. (By analogy, an opposition party normally expresses itself against the policies of the government. But it would be something of a stretch to claim that, say, the essence of the Labour Party — or socialism itself — is defined exclusively by ‘what the Tories are not’.)

The practical disutility of such a definition can, moreover, be easily grasped. If atheism is defined exclusively in terms of (say) the prevailing Abrahamic monotheism, then all non-adherents in that society — including huge numbers of other types of theists, both poly and mono — are thereby made ‘atheists’. But not even the proponents of such definitions, in practice, use the concept in so broad and unwieldy a way. Furthermore, it becomes meaningless to speak of ‘atheism’ in times and places where this kind of monotheism is basically unknown: depending on one’s understanding of a-, either everyone in ancient Athens was an atheist (in the negative sense), or nobody was (in the positive sense). But again, even those proposing such ethnocentric definitions of atheism still want to single out specific groups of ‘atheists’ in classical Greece (cf. Cliteur 2009: 5).

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who, rather than restricting the scope of -theism to one specific understanding of God, wish instead to extend it to encompass all supernatural beings, forces, and phenomena. James Thrower, for instance, distinguishes ‘relative atheism’ (such as we have just discussed) from ‘absolute atheism’, which he regards as synonymous with metaphysical naturalism ([1971] 2000: 4). Other scholars, while not defining atheism in terms of naturalism, nevertheless regard the two as intrinsically linked. Kerry Walters, for example, asserts: ‘The worldview that undergirds atheism is one whose deepest core belief is that the natural world is all that there is’ (2010: 36). He continues:

"[A]ll atheists are both methodological and what might be called ‘ontological’ naturalists. They don’t just insist that scientific hypotheses must be kept free of occult explanations. They argue that scientific explanations are legitimate because there is nothing in reality that can’t be understood ultimately in material, physico-chemical, naturalistic terms. For the ontological naturalist, there is nothing apart from nature, and nature is self-originating, self-explanatory, and without overall purpose." (ibid.: 37)

But while this may well be the worldview of many atheists, especially Western positive atheists (though I expect many of these would wish to qualify the above précis), there seems no need to regard this as being the atheist worldview. There are vast numbers of people who have no belief whatsoever in anything ‘theistic’, and yet believe in other supernatural beings or phenomena (see Eller 2010: 3, 10). These may include impersonal ‘forces’ or ‘energies’, nature spirits, dead ancestors, demons, sprites, or ghosts, as well as any number of paranormal possibilities such as clairvoyance, telekinesis, messages from beyond the grave, etc. Furthermore, this applies both to the followers of multiple non-theistic world religions, as well as to wholly nonreligious, self-defining ‘atheists’ in the secular West (see, for example, Lois Lee’s chapter on ‘Western Europe’). These cases, atypical and anomalous as they may (or may not) be, are certainly interesting, and there would seem to be little gained by defining such people as non-atheists out of hand. The same applies, of course, to other attempts to identify atheism-in-general with a specific worldview (such as, most commonly, humanism). The words of George Smith are worth recalling:

"From the mere fact that a person is an atheist, one cannot infer that this person subscribes to any particular positive beliefs. One’s positive convictions are quite distinct from the subject of atheism. While one may begin with a basic philosophical position and infer atheism as a consequence of it, this process cannot be reversed. One cannot move from atheism to a basic philosophical belief, because atheism can be (and has been) incorporated within many different and incompatible philosophical systems." ([1979] 1989: 21–2)

Yet again, the primary concern here is utility: the study of atheism has far too much to lose in terms of richness and diversity by artificially excluding great sectors of those from whom a belief in the existence of a God or gods is absent.

Conclusion

 
The purpose of this chapter has been to explore the troublesome question of what atheism actually means, and to elucidate and justify the specific way in which it is being used in this volume. After introducing a number of background issues — the variability of word’s historical and contemporary usage, and the benefits of a generally agreed-upon scholarly definition — the task was broken down into its two constituent parts: the definition of a-, and the definition of -theism. It was argued that the former is best interpreted in the privative sense of an ‘absence’. This permits atheism to function as an umbrella concept, uniting a wide (but coherent) set of positions and phenomena. It is then possible to construct a systematic taxonomy of different types of atheism — the most basic division being between negative (simple absence) and positive (specific denial) — to bring clarity to further researches. The discussion regarding -theism was more complicated, with a broader range of credible options. Here it was argued that the central idea should be ‘belief in the existence of a God or gods’ (without needing to define too sharply what does or does not count as a ‘god’, a concept lacking a certain clarity in the field of religious studies). This steers a course between confining theism to only a specific form of it (e.g., Abrahamic monotheism), and needlessly coupling atheism itself to a particular metaphysical or ethical worldview. The resulting union of these two decisions gives us the following definition of atheism: an absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods. Since it has been a key contention in this chapter that the definition of atheism is to be guided by the principle of scholarly utility — and not least the extent to which it helps, or hinders, the pursuit of interesting and genuinely illuminating research — then this particular one can, to a significant degree, be judged by its fruits in the rest of this Handbook.
 
 
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(Image credit: Musasha)
Text used with permission of publisher, copied from Friendly Atheist blog.

Stephen Bullivant

Written by

Dr. Stephen Bullivant is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at St Mary's University, England. A former atheist, he studied philosophy and theology at Oxford University, and converted to Catholicism while completing his doctorate on Vatican II and the salvation of unbelievers. In 2010, he was the first non-American to receive the "LaCugna Award for New Scholars" from the Catholic Theological Society of America. Stephen writes and speaks extensively on the theology and sociology of atheism, and the new evangelization. He recent books include Faith and Unbelief (Canterbury Press, 2013; Paulist Press, 2014), and (co-edited with Michael Ruse) The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2013). His latest book is called The Trinity: How Not to Be a Heretic (Paulist Press, 2015).

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  • Sqrat

    At the bottom of the article is a picture of Dr. Bullivant holding, I presume, his daughter Grace. Dr.Bullivant is a Catholic. Grace is (or was, at the time this picture was taken) an atheist.

    • Sqrat, thanks for the comment. You might be right, but so what? What's your point? What are you trying to suggest about the truth of atheism?

      Should we turn to babies to validate other beliefs or lack of beliefs, as if infants were some ideal intellectual measure?

      PS. You may have missed Jimmy Akin's earlier post here: "Are Babies Atheists?".

      • Sqrat

        I had no point, really, other than the obvious one that Dr. Bullivant
        was advancing a definition of "atheism" according to which his daughter is an atheist. I wonder if that was intentional. I might add that, in his bio at the end of the article, Dr. Bullivant is
        identified as "a former atheist." Given his definition, absolutely everyone who is not now an atheist is a former atheist.

        Jimmy Akin didn't explicitly answer his own question, but it looks like he was strongly leaning in the direction of saying that, no, babies aren't atheists. If so, that would put him in opposition to Dr. Bullivant -- unless Dr. Bullivant didn't actually mean to define "atheism" in such a way as to mean that babies are atheists.

        • Stephen Bulivant

          Dear Sqrat - thanks for the comment. And actually I have no real problem with the 'babies are atheists' point. What Grace's ontological and metaphysical views are *now* is a somewhat more moot point - being, as she's quick to point out, 'two and a half', and with a surprising range of views on many weighty questions.
          Assuming she does still have 'an absence of belief in a God or gods though' (and I admit she probably does) I would still want to say that she is - in a manner proper to a two and a half year old - a very Catholic atheist: in virtue of her baptism, the fact she attends Mass, her affection for and ability to recognize various saints (St Anthony of Padua is a frequent invitee of her tea parties, along with Piglet and Eeyore), etc., etc.
          All parentally conditioned, of course, - and the merits or not of that we might discuss at another time - but none the less a signficant part of 'who she is' for that, I think.

          • Sqrat

            And thank you, Stephen ,for the courtesy of a reply.

            Elsewhere I've expressed my personal preference for a narrow rather than a broad definition of "atheism". For the wide spectrum of beliefs (and lack of beliefs) that you wish to encompass under the term, I think I would have preferred either "unbelief" (following J.C.A. Gaskin's title, "Varieties of Unbelief : From Epicurus to Sartre") or "nonbelief". I concede that the "correct" definitions of those words may be almost as slippery as that of "atheism."

          • Stephen Bulivant

            I like ' unbelief' too, though you end up with unbeliever which strikes some folks as having pejorative connotations. Nonbelief prob an improvement, but we end up even further from terms people actually use.. And yep, I think you're right that the same issues would apply here too!

          • Sqrat

            Lot's of words can have negative connotations to certain people. Consider, for instance, "Catholic"....

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I have read often the claim that children naturally believe in God but I've begun to doubt it. I'm certain that children easily believe whatever their parents and teachers tell them. I guess the natural beliefs of children could be tested by interviewing the children of atheists.

      That said, calling Grace an atheist is merely clever. A toddler's lack of belief probably spans nearly everything any adult believes.

      • Sqrat

        It wasn't my intent to be merely clever. Rather, it was to point out that Baby Grace, who presumably lacked a belief in the existence of God, met Dr. Bullivant's definition of an "atheist."

        I personally would prefer to limit the use of the term "atheist" to describe those who fit what Dr. Bullivant calls the "long tradition in English of understanding atheism’s prefix as demanding, not merely an absence of theism, but instead a definite rejection of it." For that I usually end up taking a lot of flak, mostly from fellow atheists (but not the ones who are babies).

      • Tim Dacey

        Kevin,

        There is a lot of research in cognitive science of religion which would suggest that belief in God(s) is not, despite what some commenters on this blog would tend to suggest, a result of some kind of psychosis or other cognitive ailment. Rather, belief in God(s) (pace Guthrie, Barrett, Boyer, to name a few) develops throughout our life. So as an infant we have no knowledge of God (but that shouldn't be a problem since we have no knowledge of a lot of things as infants!). As we grow and our brains develop, those researchers suggest that developing beliefs about God(s) is as natural as developing language(?) or any other naturally acquired attribute.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Tim, that would be a great OP for Strange Notions. Why don't you write it up?

          • Tim Dacey

            I'd be up to that if its okay with Brandon and SN.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Of course it is his call but the email is contact@strangenotions.com

    • Even stranger: if Grace is baptized, then she's a Catholic atheist.

      • Sqrat

        Which is precisely how Dr. Bullivant characterized her.

        And long may she remain so :)

        • Oh, I didn't see that comment. Oops.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        I am a Catholic atheist, too. I reject every false conception of God and the Catholic faith.

        • Hahaha, oh dear.

          I once encountered someone who believed the sun is a god. I do agree that the sun exists, so although I don't worship it apparently I'm also a theist.

          Actually, that suggests another interesting definition that could be given, whereby "theist" would mean someone who worships at least one god and "atheist" would mean someone who doesn't worship any god.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Do all theists "worship" God?

          • Under the normal definitions, no. Under the alternative definition I proposed, yes -- but they might worship a god they don't believe in, like some Unitarian Universalists. :)

          • Kevin Aldrich

            A Catholic friend in Boston, the home of Unitarianism, likes to quip that the Unitarians can give up God but not religion.

          • Ignorant Amos

            George Carlin worshipped the Sun...the Sun and Joe Pesci. Joe Pesci was a man that in Carlin's opinion could get things done ya see.

      • M. Solange O’Brien

        So does that mean she's a proponent/example of Pascal's Wager in action? No beliefs, but behaviors? Otherwise, characterizing her as Catholic without her actually believing Catholic doctrine just confuses the whole thing.

    • Moussa Taouk

      I hope Mr Bullivant will soon make a saintly Catholic of the girl!

      • M. Solange O’Brien

        I hope not. The child should be allowed her own choice of beliefs.

        • Moussa Taouk

          That's a bit dangerous (as well as impractical/impossible). What if she believes that small rabbits should be squeezed to death and chicken eggs should be broken and the little chook inside should be squashed, and various other tortures be inflicted on insects and other small creatures? What if she believes that people should be all natural and should walk around society stark naked? Or what if she believes that humans are tasty and that in any case if she drinks the blood of another human she will take on that other human's powers?

          I thought that (not teaching children religion) was dawkins' second weakest and most impractical argument in his book "The God Delusion".

          • Michael Murray

            Or what if she believes that humans are tasty and that in any case if she drinks the blood of another human she will take on that other human's powers?

            Catholicism prevents this does it ? Body of Christ, Blood of Christ ....

          • Moussa Taouk

            Haha. yeh, good point Michael. Though I'd much rather she ate the body and blood of the resurrected Christ under the visible "accidents" of bread and wine than her eating the body and blood of her next door neightbour.

  • I agree entirely with this piece. A little surprised that you didn't reference the early. Greek use of the term to refer to Christians and others who lacked belief in pagan Gods.

    But I also agree that etymology is of little value, and that your formulation is the most useful both academically and in fora like this. Thanks!

    • Brian, you may have missed Stephen's earlier piece at Strange Notions where he focused on the Roman use of the Greek term "atheos": "Catholic Saint: 'We Confess that We are Atheists'"

    • Stephen Bullivant

      Thanks very much Brian - not least for wading through it all! Brandon beat me to the plug for my earlier post (which is, I should add, a much shorter version of something I've written in another book). In terms of the Handbook, though, I left that fascinating topic in the hands of the real experts - there's a whole chapter on 'The First Millennium' in the history section, which discusses it (and much else), by this guy: http://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/college/profile/academics/mark-edwards

    • Stephen Bulivant

      Thanks Brian - I just posted a reply that seems now to have disappeared (which is only relevant if it now reappears, and you're wondering why I've posted tow near-identical replies...)
      The piece Brandon kindly mentions is a shortened version from another of my books. For the Handbook, though, I left the topic to the proper experts - it's discussed in the 'The First Millennium' chapter in the history section, written by Prof. Mark Edwards of Oxford University.

  • The purpose of this chapter has been to explore the troublesome question of what atheism actually means, and to elucidate and justify the specific way in which it is being used in this volume.

    OK. People can use words to mean whatever they like as long as they make it clear. Does anyone find something of value in this excerpt for use outside that book?

    • Jimi Burden

      No value at all. Did anyone actually take the time to read it? Philosophers have a way of complicating the most simple things.

      • On the contrary, it's people as a whole who have complicated the term "atheism," not philosophers. Bullivant points out that among his survey of students with very similar demographics, there was no consensus on what the term means.

        Instead of complicating a simple thing, I think that Bullivant is simplifying a complicated thing. In contributing to an accepted scholarly definition of atheism, Bullivant makes it more likely that in at least academic circles, people can finally start talking about the same thing.

        • Sqrat

          If you're going to publish a book called "The Oxford Handbook of Atheism," you certainly need to define up front what you mean by "atheism." Where I disagree with Bullivant is in the decision to adopt a broad definition of the term. Doing so obliterates necessary linguistic distinctions between different kinds of non-belief -- distinctions that then need to be re-introduced by making new linguistic distinctions.

          I've just been perusing the Oxford English Dictionary. According to the OED, the earliest use of the term "atheist" in English from which the writer's meaning is clear is from 1571: "The Atheistes which say..there is no God." Given that meaning, Baby Grace Bullivant is not an atheist. For her, I would prefer the term "non-believer". According to the OED, the earliest known use of that word is from 1649: "We must distinguish Non-believers from unbelievers, such as are not up to a capassity of professing faith... Such are all Infants."

          • What language do you think captures the distinctions better?

            Personally, I find Bullivant's taxonomy simple enough, but I would give it up if people could all just agree on a single definition and stick with it! Or if we could just ban the words "atheist" and "agnostic" and start from scratch.

            In non-academic discussions, I think the best strategy is to just describe what one does/doesn't believe, since we all have such annoyingly different understandings of these labels.

          • Sqrat

            It's not his taxonomy I find problematic, it's his vocabulary.

            My preferred vocabulary (and its associated taxonomy) is this: On one side you have people who believe that God exists. Call them "theists." On the other side you have people who believe that God does not exist. Call them "atheists." In the middle you have people who do not believe that God exists, but also do not believe that God does not exist. Call them "nonbelievers." This is all based on fairly common English-language usage going back hundreds of years.

            Of these three groups, the one that most requires some qualification of pre-existing vocabulary would be the nonbelievers, because they can readily be divided into two sub-groups.

            First, you have those who do not believe that God exists and also do not believe that believe that God does not exist simply because they have no understanding of the concept of "God." Infants like Baby Grace fall into this sub-group. In 1979, George H. Smith proposed calling such people "implicit atheists." I think "implicit nonbelievers" is a bit better, but maybe "uninformed nonbelievers" would be better still?

            Second, you have those who do not believe that God exists and also do not believe that God does not exist because, after having considered the question, they are still not sure what to believe; they are unable to arrive at a conclusion. What should we call such people? "Undecided nonbelievers", perhaps?

          • I do sorta like the way you split some things up there sqrat, and your distinctions between the different types of "nonbelievers" I think captures meaningful differences in stances.

            One possible drawback: your use of non-believer may be a confusing distinction. Under your taxonomy, both non-believers and atheists do "not believe" in God, but only non-believers count as. . . non-believers. That seems a bit confusing.

            Ultimately, I'm not sure I see a reason to prefer your vocabulary over Bullivant's. While Bullivant's use of the word "atheism" covers two separate terms that you use, adding a distinction seems to be a minor problem, if a problem at all. If I was in a conversation with you though, I wouldn't mind using your preferred language, which works as well as Bullivant's for the most part.

          • Sqrat

            One possible drawback: your use of non-believer may be a confusing distinction. Under your taxonomy, both non-believers and atheists do "not believe" in God, but only non-believers count as. . . non-believers. That seems a bit confusing.

            Agreed, the terminology surrounding the middle category I choose to call "non-believers" doesn't seem to be as well-established in the language as the terms "theist" and (I argue) "atheist." But note that, if non-believers, as I have defined them, are like atheists in that they lack a belief in the existence of God, they are also like theists in that they lack a belief in the non-existence of God. Somehow that doesn't seem to raise a similar point of confusion. That's probably due to the fact that "believer" is sometimes used synonymously with "theist", but is never used synonymously with "atheist", even when "atheist" is defined as "someone who believes that God does not exist."

  • Jakeithus

    While the conclusions about the best way to use the term atheist likely makes the most sense from an academic perspective, I find it is somewhat problematic and frustrating when using the term that way in everyday conversations.

    A certain segment of atheists, in my experience, take "an absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods" to the extreme and maintain they have an absence of belief in anything relating to metaphysical issues. Some have even told me that they have an absence of belief, period, as if belief were the thing they were denying, not God. It's ridiculous of course, but I suspect it's because it is often easier to think about what one doesn't believe in rather than what they do.

    I maintain that when actually dealing with people, it is better to focus on positive beliefs rather than what is absent. Atheism because useful at categorizing and grouping larger numbers, but it should be replaced with positive identifiers.

  • cminca

    Of course, you could just go to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

    "one who believes that there is no deity"

    A lot less strum und drang.

    • But this is too restrictive in my view. It excludes those who simply lack a belief in a god of gods.

      • Sqrat

        It excludes them as being covered by a particular definition of the word "atheist." It's not to say that they don't exist, only that some other word should be used to refer to them.

  • Tim Dacey

    Another important point to make is how often (self identified) atheists and non-atheists confuse epistemological and metaphysical claims about belief in God. For example, one can believe there is no God on epistemological grounds that there is no evidence, that God is not a proper object of our cognitive faculties, so on and so forth. This individual can surely call himself an atheist without actually denying that a Deity (or Deities) exists; she might just consider metaphysical claims meaningless.

    • Ignorant Amos

      I prefer Igtheist...there is no ground rules when defining gods and meanings. God seems to be whatever a particular believer deems it to be at any particular given moment. All very slippery, like trying to hold an armful of eels.

      • Susan

        I prefer Igtheist

        I'm an igtheist too. What choice do I have?

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Igtheism

      • NicholasBeriah Cotta

        So what is the ground rule for falsifiability? Is dark matter falsifiable or should we not theorize about its nature?

        • M. Solange O’Brien

          Dark matter is falsifiable. We just haven't devised the experiments yet. God, the way he/she/it keeps getting defined by "sophisticated theologians" is not falsifiable.

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            I agree that God is not falsifiable - the doctrine of Igtheism would say that talking about God is useless because He is not falsifiable. What I am saying is that dark matter is not falsifiable so you shouldn't think that is useful either - the idea that we just haven't come up with the experiments yet is really a philosophical proposition of "reducibility" which means that "you know dark matter is reducible, it's just a matter of time." This is not empirically true, it is just a guess.
            This theory of reducibility is in itself, not falsifiable, yet you believe in it and invoke it all the same. Igtheism is not a theory compatible with science as we know it which always seeks to know that which is not known. It doesn't allow for every possibility, one of them being that new knowledge may not be reducible.

          • Susan

            the doctrine of Igtheism

            I'm not sure you know what doctrine means. How is igtheism a doctrine?

            would say that talking about God is useless because He is not falsifiable

            You skipped past the incoherent part before the falsifiable bit. The fact that you refer to your ground-of-all-being as "he" is one of many examples of the incoherency.

            What I am saying is that dark matter is not falsifiable

            There is a difference between being falsifiable in principle and falsifiable in practice. That which might be falsifiable in practice today might not remain that way. Being unfalsifiable in principle (as are your deity claims) is a real problem. We can make up lots of things that are unfalsifiable in principle. Like invisible dragons in garages, for instance. (Hate to beat a dead dragon like this but none of the catholics on this site, as far as I can recall have ever responded to the perfectly well illustrated example of the dragon in my garage.

            I'll post it again in the hope that someone might show some indication that they've even acknowledged it, and the deeper but more far-reaching hope that they might respond to it.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJRy3Kl_z5E&hd=1

            Do you know what dark matter refers to and why? I don't get the impression that you do but I could be wrong. It bears no resemblance to deity claims. So your references to it confuse me.

            What is this theory of reducibility?

            Igtheism is not a theory compatible with science as we know it

            Igtheism has nothing to do with science. Please read the words in the article.

            It doesn't allow for every possibility,

            What does that even mean?

            Amos and I are the only ones who claimed to be igtheists here. I'm not sure you'll make much progress grilling M. Solange about it. You should really respond to her points specifically when you talk to her.

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            Doctrine is a set of beliefs espoused by a certain group. When i say "doctrine of igtheism," I mean set of beliefs from the group known as igtheists. We can play semantics if you'd like, which is the ultimate pastime of all people arguing to hear themselves argue. And as to your second claim of my ignorance, I am under the impression that dark matter is the theoretical stuff which would account for certain observable effects of matter in the universe by the standard model of physics.
            And although I attempted to answer your dragon argument before, let me tell you simply why that analogy doesn't hold. Dragon implies a being and garage implies a limited space. You have analogized our idea of God to a finite being in a finite place. This means that we can not even begin to address your analogy until you understand our argument for God.
            You have coherency confused with precision when you talk about giving God a pronoun. Because the pronoun is the same one used for the idea "male" does not mean we are being incoherent. It'd be like using the term "dark matter" for matter of which we know nothing except that it has mass (theoretically). It describes nothing other than "has mass" and "can't be seen" and yet it is still coherently used in context quite a bit. A word doesn't have to describe an idea completely but can be used as an agreed reference for something of which we currently don't fully understand.
            And last but not least, my term theory of reducibility is another way of describing scientism- that everything accepted by humans must be through proven evidence assumes that everything in the world can be proven to humans (unless you would agree that science is not the ultimate arbiter of truth). This would eliminate from the world anything not reducible to humanity which sounds dubious from what we know about the scale of the observable universe. I can't imagine that every concept, law of physics, type of matter, etc., is able to be physically computed (thus understood) by our brain.

          • Susan

            When i say "doctrine of igtheism," I mean set of beliefs from the group known as igtheists.

            Which are what? Doctrine is more than a set of beliefs. Don't make me post from an on-line dictionary.

            I am under the impression that dark matter is the theoretical stuff which would account for certain observable effects of matter in the universe by the standard model of physics.

            Which you claim is unfalsifiable. How so?

            Dragon implies a being and garage implies a limited space. You have analogized our idea of God to a finite being in a finite place. This means that we can not even begin to address your analogy until you understand our argument for God.

            You have added the attribute "infinite" to your invisible dragon without justifying it. This doesn't make you assertion more reasonable.

            Because the pronoun is the same one used for the idea "male" does not mean we are being incoherent.

            You allude to a ground-of-all-being and then talk about it as an agent, a relentlessly male agent, at that. Again, without justification.

            my term theory of reducibility is another way of describing scientism- that everything accepted by humans must be through proven evidence assumes that everything in the world can be proven to humans

            I don't assume anything like that. I do think it's reasonable that when people make existence claims, that they have a burden to demonstrate existence. Why is that complicated?

            I can't imagine that every concept, law of physics, type of matter, etc., is able to be physically computed (thus understood) by our brain.

            There is much we don't know. Probably much that we'll never know. That is why I don't think it's a good idea to accept ultimate, incoherent, unevidenced claims by other humans just because they assert them.

  • Michael Murray

    an absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods.

    Excellent definition. It's the one I always use so clearly the correct one :-). I notice that the OED online is having a quid in about four different ways:

    "Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods."

  • Peter

    Neo-atheism in the west is defined by its opposition to creationism - the notion that God magicked a ready-made creation into existence at the beginning of time - whether that be a complete world populated with creatures, or an early universe with a life-creating low entropy configuration. Take away the Protestant apologists who champion creationism in all its forms, and you remove the oxygen on which neo-atheists thrive.

    Atheist scientists and philosophers have written a lot of books and made a lot of money countering the claims of creationists, just as creationists have done by challenging the responses of atheist scientists and philosophers. It seems to me they need each other in a never-ending money-making racket.

    • Sqrat

      Color me puzzled. Does not the Catholic Church espouse the notion that God magicked a ready-made creation into existence at the beginning of time in the form of an early universe with a life-creating low entropy configuration? Why attribute that view only to Protestant apologists?

      • Peter

        According to the Church, "the word began when God's word drew it out of nothingness" (CCC 386). God simply called creation into being. It is perfectly plausible that the universe responded by creating itself naturally in a manner we have yet to discover, which would include a naturalistic explanation for its initial low entropy state.

        • Sqrat

          Wrong citation -- it should be CCC 338.

          I would refer you, for example, to CCC 317: "God alone created the universe freely, directly, and without any help." He did not tell the universe to go create itself.

          • Peter

            Thanks, corrected.
            What God didn't do was supernaturally magic a complete world into existence as new earth creationists believe, because there is scientific evidence to the contrary which brings that believe into ridicule.
            Likewise, the growth of cosmological understanding leading to a naturalistic explanation for the low entropy of the early universe will also bring into ridicule the belief that it too was magicked into existence by God.

          • Sqrat

            And then it will be time to rewrite the Catechism again.

          • Ignorant Amos

            He did not tell the universe to go create itself.

            Out of nothing, don't forget that bit.

            I like what Peter has said here though. It's exactly what we have been proposing as a better explanation for what we know, and it is in line with William of Ockham. "The universe creates itself naturally". It has a beautiful ring to it don't you think? That is a result here in my opinion.

        • Ignorant Amos

          The ever decreasing God of the gaps. "We don't know how it all started, but whatever it is, it was God."

          God simply called creation into being.

          Simple was it? This is why debates with believers will always fail. No logic required. It can all be reduced to God did it. Because God can do anything and knows everything...and we mere mortals have no comprehension of such power, lest we too be gods.

          It is perfectly plausible that the universe responded by creating itself naturally in a manner we have yet to discover, which would include a naturalistic explanation for its initial low entropy state.

          Really? You really said that? So, the not-yet-existent-universe "heard" God calling it into being, and decided to create itself...naturally...in a way that would show no God was necessary, but we have yet to discover, but would include a naturalistic explanation for its initial low entropy, obviously. Is that a proposal you are asserting?

          • Peter

            As I indicated in my opening comment, neo-atheists and creationists are locked in a never-ending self-sustaining conflict. This can be represented by each group holding the opposing sides of the Kalam cosmological argument.

            Creationists cannot understand how creation can come into being without it being magicked into existence in one form or another, while neo-atheists cannot understand how a God can exist without him magicking creation into being in one form or another.

            Both sides regard God as an efficient cause, for the creationists to be justified by scripture and for the neo-atheists to be falsified by science. This is a rigid mindset which needs to be broken so that a deeper understanding of what God is can be achieved.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Apparently you are not well versed on what new Atheists actually say. I'm not aware of any atheist claiming that god is an efficient cause.

          • Peter

            Of course, anyone who claims that God is an efficient cause would not be an atheist to start with. What I said was that atheists limit God to being an efficient cause of the universe which they then can falsify through science, in much the same way as God as the efficient cause of a young earth has been falsified by science.

            By defining God as an efficient cause, what atheists are doing is setting up him as a straw man which they can then set fire to by turning to science to disprove that cause. The creationists are handed them this opportunity on a plate by defining God in the same way and leaving him vulnerable to scientific disproof by atheists.

            This seems to be a game played between creationists and atheists which may result in lucrative book sales and lecture fees, but which has absolutely no bearing on the genuine existence of God.

          • Ignorant Amos

            neo-atheists cannot understand how a God can exist without him magicking creation into being in one form or another.

            You overcooked that a bit Peter.

            "neo-atheists cannot understand how a God can exist."

            That's better.

            Both sides regard God as an efficient cause, for the creationists to be justified by philosophy and for the neo-atheists to be falsified by science.

            Believers just can't get their heads round a simple concept. Would it make the same sense to you if that statement was written as...

            Both sides regard Physics as an efficient cause, for the creationists to be justified by philosophy and for the neo-atheists to be falsified by science.

            I don't think so, and neither would a creationist, a term which includes Catholics BTW.

            What about...

            Both sides regard the invisible dragon in my garage as an efficient cause, for the creationists to be justified by philosophy and for the neo-atheists to be falsified by science.

            This is a rigid mindset which needs to be broken so that a deeper understanding of what God is and how he creates can be achieved.

            Why? Why should it matter about the left and rights mindset? What is preventing the middle from doing what you believe is do-able?

            But say your comment was correct, how much longer would you need before giving up the ghost looking for a deeper understanding of God and how he creates, rather than getting behind the tried and tested method that has been seen to work, time and time again, just out of interest?

          • Peter

            As I said before, I only have Church teaching to guide me.
            That teaching tells me that time had a beginning and so far, despite every attempt to undermine it, has proved to be correct. Therefore, for as long as that teaching endures, I will never give up the ghost.

          • Ignorant Amos

            As I said before, I only have Church teaching to guide me.

            That is very unfortunate on your part, and a great pity because you say things like...

            What God didn't do was supernaturally magic a complete world into existence as new earth creationists believe, because there is scientific evidence to the contrary which brings that belief into ridicule.

            Likewise, the growth of cosmological understanding leading to a naturalistic explanation for the low entropy of the early universe will also bring into ridicule the belief that it too was magicked into existence by God.

            Then what you want to do is invoke an extra step between the ridiculous magicked part and God. You think by doing that the assertion is far less ridiculous, giving your position an air of respectability. I think the only difference between the creationism of Catholicism and YEC, is time. I don't hear much difference in the method other than you claim one is "willed" and the other is "magicked". Can you explain any difference?

            At least the YEC is being honest to the Biblical hypothesis. The Catholic Church has had to review their stance and come up with some fudge to get by on.

            That teaching tells me that time had a beginning and so far, despite every attempt to undermine it, has proved to be correct.

            It is the Church over reaching itself on that that it cannot know. It also smacks of circular arguing.

            The Church likes some things to have a beginning because it needs such things to have a beginning to make a case, yet the Church claims not everything needs that beginning. Just because the Church says it is so, doesn't make it such.

            Therefore, for as long as that teaching endures, I will never give up the ghost.

            That is fair enough. It is your prerogative. That doesn't allow you to make stuff up though. I'd ask what it is in the teaching that convinces you that the teaching is accurate?

          • Peter

            Atheist physiciists spend much of their time trying to disprove the Kalam argument put forward by Christian apologists who say that the universe had a beginning which needs a cause which they claim is a supernatural cause.

            The physicists do this by constructing cosmological models which show how the universe comes to exist naturalistically without the need for supernatural intervention. Some show that the universe has existed forever, without a beginning and therefore without the need for a cause, while others show that the universe spontaneously creates itself from nothing without the need for God to set it in motion.

            By demonstrating that the universe is entirely naturalistic, the physicists aim to disprove the Kalam argument and undermine the claim that the universe was originated supernaturally or, if you like, magicked into existence. However, unlike the Christian apologists, the Catholic Church does not rely on the Kalam cosmological argument. She does not hold as a matter of doctrine that the universe was magicked into existence as followers of the Kalam argument do.

            Followers of the Kalam argument argue the old philosophical adage that nothing comes from nothing and therefore the universe must have a cause which is ultimately supernatural. However, the Church says the reverse which is that creation did indeed come from nothing. There is no Church doctrine which says that the universe's action of coming into being from nothing cannot have happened purely naturalistically.

            And as for so-called eternal universes, all these models rely on time symmetry where the arrow of time begins to run both backwards and forwards from a low entropy boundary as entropy grows in both directions. This still denotes a beginning of time, although from our perspective it would mark the end and not the beginning of a contracting universe. So, if they are correct as naturalistic models, they do not contradict Church doctrine which teaches that time had a beginning.

            That the universe exists naturalistically is perfectly consistent with Church teaching, and the Church welcomes further scientific discovery which reveals even more the naturalistic manner in which the universe comes to be. God simply wills the universe into existence not just from a point in the past but at every moment. And in response to his will, he allows the universe to bring itself into existence and keeps itself there through its own naturalistic means.

          • Ignorant Amos

            Atheist physiciists spend much of their time trying to disprove the Kalam argument put forward by Christian apologists who say that the universe had a beginning which needs a cause which they claim is a supernatural cause.

            Do they? Do physicists, atheist of otherwise, spend much of their time trying to disprove the Kalam cosmological argument? I don't believe they do, but I'd be up for being proven wrong. I thought the cosmological argument was a philosophical argument which has been dismissed by philosophers a long time ago. The premise is errant, but even if it wasn't the conclusion IS.

            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/essays/unmoved-mover/#cosmological

            The physicists do this by constructing cosmological models which show how the universe comes to exist naturalistically without the need for supernatural intervention. Some show that the universe has existed forever, without a beginning and therefore without the need for a cause, while others show that the universe spontaneously creates itself from nothing without the need for God to set it in motion.

            By demonstrating that the universe is entirely naturalistic, the physicists aim to disprove the Kalam argument and undermine the claim that the universe was originated supernaturally or, if you like, magicked into existence.

            Peter, I don't believe for one minute that physicists are spending any time trying to disprove Kalam. I don't believe phycicists are doing any of the stuff you say in order to undermine the claim that the universe was magicked into being.

            However, unlike the Christian apologists, the Catholic Church does not rely on the Kalam cosmological argument.

            I don't think anyone is relying on the cosmological argument to make or disprove their point...perhaps WLC maybe, but no one using more than two brain cells between their ears anyway.

            She [CC] does not hold as a matter of doctrine that the universe was magicked into existence as followers of the Kalam argument do.

            You've not be on this site long then have you? Much time, and many OP's complete with extensive comments, has been invested on this site debating the cosmological argument, including the Kalam version. If Catholics don't find it a matter of doctrine that God was the cause of the everything, why do they bother?

            https://strangenotions.com/index.php?s=kalam

            Followers of the Kalam argument argue the old philosophical adage that nothing comes from nothing and therefore the universe must have a cause which is ultimately supernatural.

            That isn't what the argument claims. What it claims, is that everything that exists, has a cause. The universe exists, so it must has a cause. The cause of the universe must be an uncaused cause. The only uncaused cause is the eternal God. God doesn't need a cause for some reason. God is the supernatural bit.

            You say the supernatural bit, "willed" the universe to create itself naturally. Which is synonymous with thought, created, magicked, breathed...or whatever other verb associated with the performance. It is an action. Even if carried out with an immaterial mind.

            However, the Church says the reverse which is that creation did indeed come from nothing.

            Agreed that that is what the Church says. Which kills the ontological argument I've been debating a fellow believer who is using design as evidence for God.

            "If God had drawn the world from pre-existent matter, what would be so extraordinary in that? A human artisan makes from a given material whatever he wants, while God shows his power by starting from nothing to make all he wants." ~ CCC 296

            But that is not in contradiction with Kalam.

            And there is no Church doctrine which says that the universe's action of coming into being from nothing cannot have happened naturalistically.

            Brilliant! Except the bit where God does the creating out of nothing, by whatever action, including willing it to happen, which is the supernatural bit.

            And as for so-called eternal universes, all these models rely on time symmetry where the arrow of time begins to run both backwards and forwards from a low entropy boundary as entropy grows in both directions. This still denotes a beginning of time, although from our perspective it would mark the end and not the beginning of a contracting universe. So, even if they are correct as naturalistic models, they do not contradict Church doctrine which teaches that time had a beginning.

            Church doctrine which teaches that time had a beginning is in all likelihood correct.

            http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-beginning-of-time.html

            But that is all ya get. Nothing before it, nothing. Everything else is hypothetical.

            The Church doctrine also teaches that God is eternal. He has always existed. Which implies time and space in which to be.

            That the universe exists naturalistically is perfectly consistent with Church teaching, and the Church welcomes further scientific discovery which reveals even more the naturalistic manner in which the universe comes to be.

            God simply wills the universe into existence not just from a point in the past but at every moment. And in response to his will, he allows the universe to bring itself into existence and keep itself there through its own naturalistic means.

            Which, like the catechism it comes from, except the use of the words "willed it" is just word salad.

            CCC 317 God alone created the universe, freely, directly and without any help.

            After all, why would an omnipotent God own a dog and bark himself?

            Ouch! Got me there. Would an omnipotent god own a dog? Is the dog "willed" into ownership? The analogy is making the argument anthropomorphic. Beings don't just "will" dogs into ownership, or "will" them to bark and by doing so, the dogs actually bark.

            And yet God does all sorts of things if one believes in such stuff. Apparently God answers prayers, performs the miraculous, creates everything that is. It all gets somewhat fuzzy.

            But I'm all for you philosophy Peter, it is easier for the simple, like me. God doesn't do anything, because a being that can do everything, doesn't need to do anything, just think it, or will it if ya like, and it is.

            Which makes debate with yourself and your like, moot.

            The stock answer to any proposition is then defended by...

            "God-did-it by thought (will)."

            I like the "willing" the universe to create itself into existence by natural causes, Peter. It's called Deism. I like it because by Ockhams razor, the God bit is redundant as I have no idea whether it is true or not, makes no difference. It is all the other stuff the Church claims for God that concerns me, the God doing his own barking part...I don't understand your omnipotent lazy God having any part or need for any of that stuff just to suit the wishful thinking of his dogs.

          • Peter

            The difference between big bang creationism and naturalism is that, in the former, the universe’s inexplicable appearance from nothing, complete with its fine-tuned laws and low entropy configuration, is attributed to a supernatural act of God, very much in the same way as in young earth creationism where a world, fully developed and populated with wildlife, is deemed to have been supernaturally created.

            Naturalism, on the other hand, seeks to explain how the universe can come to exist or be existing, replete with all its parameters, without the need for it to have been supernaturally brought into being as such in the manner described above.

            The Church maintains that God is omnipotent and utterly sovereign which means that everything obeys his command, whether that be expressed as thought, call or word. This includes creation itself which, when commanded to come into being, responds by bringing itself into existence by its own means or, if you like, by lifting itself up by its own bootstraps.

            The point I am making, and this is the crucial point, is that if creation did not respond in this way but instead had to rely on being brought into existence supernaturally in a ready-made condition, as big bang creationists believe, this would be evidence that the Creator is less than omnipotent.

            In other words, if creation comes into being in any way other than a purely naturalistic way, God cannot be omnipotent. Why? Because, in a nutshell, he lacks the power to command creation to create itself and, because he lacks that power, has to settle for second best which is doing the job himself. The only logical consequence for an omnipotent Creator is a universe which in response to his sovereign command brings itself into being by its own means.

          • Peter

            A note about CCC 296:

            "If God had drawn the world from pre-existent matter, what would be so extraordinary in that? A human artisan makes from a given material whatever he wants, while God shows his power by starting from nothing to make all he wants"

            It is easy to be confused from the above into thinking that God constructs the world like a workman using his tools but without any raw material. However, it goes deeper than that.

            When it says that God starts from nothing, not only does it mean that there is no raw material, but also that there are no tools to manipulate that material. Therefore God creates without material and without tools; he is neither a material cause nor an efficient cause of the world.

          • Ignorant Amos

            My point was to show that both arguments are paradoxical. One Catholic believer wants to assert one argument to prove God, while another Catholic believer wants to use a contradictory argument.

            The analogy from the argument made by your fellow Catholic was a log cabin in the woods. When coming upon a log cabin in the woods, one doesn't posit it created itself naturally. It exhibits design and construction. That designer and builder is a human artisan. Ergo, the things in the universe that exhibit design and construction require a designer and builder. That designer and builder is God.

            Kalam argues an uncaused cause that must be eternal and outside space, time and material...the proverbial immaterial mind, which is supernatural.

            But you have argued that God doesn't do anything. His omnipotence forbids it. You still haven't explained how the non-universe knows how to design and construct itself naturally, but however, log cabins need stuff to exist before being designed and constructed. Human beings can't just "will" log cabins into being. You still have not defined "willed" as expressed in your argument, but however. I cannot see these arguments standing, and they don't.

            Your argument is also a falling down on your premise. Not only do you assert a Gods existence, but you assert an impossible attribute, not so much omnipotence, just the precise omnipotence your argument needs, and all because someone told you.

            Also, what about all the other stuff God does? You still haven't explained why a God so omnipotent that doing stuff is beneath him, so doesn't, allegedly does, according to the Church, a lot of really mundane things, on the face of it.

            What is called into existence from nothing obeys that command by bringing itself into being as its own material and efficient cause.

            If there is nothing there, how can it respond to any "call"? What happened to "willed" btw?

          • Peter

            Please see my comment below which explains that God cannot be omnipotent if creation doesn't bring itself into being in response to his command, which can be expressed as his will, thought, call or word.

            Also, in response to your question of how the universe brings itself into being, please see my comment of three days ago to Paul Brandon Rimmer which begins:

            "I believe God reveals himself as Creator through the sheer subtlety of his creation which transcends the understanding of time which we as entities embedded in time possess"

            When we think about God as Creator we have to break out of the linear thinking which bedevils the atheist-creationist debate, involving cause and effect, In doing so, there is no contradiction between a universe that is simultaneously its own cause and effect, or a universe which is both temporal and eternal.

            That's why the Kalam argument doesn't apply, because it is a linear ar

          • Ignorant Amos

            Peter, you've said a lot of stuff, but because you say it, or you think the RCC is saying it, it doesn't make it any more sensible. The stuff that you have been saying that does make sense, just about every Atheist that has been here would agree with, it's the unnecessary extra bit that the non believer has issues with. That is the bit that you just assert must be true because you see it in Church doctrine. No further explanation necessary.

            I don't see too many of your religious comrades jumping in to defend your hypothesis that...

            It is perfectly plausible that the universe responded by creating itself naturally in a manner we have yet to discover, which would include a naturalistic explanation for its initial low entropy state.

            The problem is the thing to which you assert without evidence that you believe the universe, which wasn't created yet, responded to. I could not respond to anything before I was conceived, but hey hoo, there ya go.

            That thing is, as you assert it, a contradiction in terms. To me it is a word that has no meaning. By it's attributes, it is a logical impossibility.

            I have asked you to define a couple of words as you have applied them throughout this discourse, which is typical, but not surprising. So I'll let you carry on writing your word salad and unsupported conjecture. I'm happy enough at this stage to have a partial concession in that you realise the universe came about by a naturalistic explanation.

            Thanks for playing.

          • Peter

            The concepts I discuss are not word salad, nor are they just from the Church. They are from modern cosmology, particularly the Hartle-Hawking model and the Aguirre-Gratton model.

            The former proposes a universe which spontaneously creates itself from nothing, blurring the lines of cause and effect, while the latter proposes a universe which is at the same time both eternal and temporal, being the continuous cause of itself.

            My departing point would be that it's gratifying to see modern cosmology which underscores the long-held teaching of the Church.

          • Ignorant Amos

            It is the use of word salad to shoehorn modern cosmology in to fit with what you believe is the long term teaching of the church that is the entertaining part.

            No scientific cosmological model I've ever been told about posits an omni-being that "wills" the whole thing to get up and running.

            I bid you adieu.

          • Peter

            CCC 338 says "the world began when God's word drew it out of nothingness". When you draw an animal out from under a bush you don't grab it and pull it out, you don't manipulate it, but you entice it and encourage it to come out under its own steam.

            So too with God. He didn't manipulate creation into being out of nothingness, but commanded it to come into being out of nothingness under its own steam. The uncanny thing is that modern cosmology describes precisely how creation comes into being through its own steam, without the need for God to have manipulated it.

            There is no shoehorning here, just a simple and straightforward corroboration of ancient doctrine by modern science.

          • Ignorant Amos

            CCC 338 says "the world began when God's word drew it out of nothingness". When you draw an animal out from under a bush or a tree you don't grab it and pull it out, you don't manipulate it, but you verbally entice it and encourage it to come out under its own steam.

            Peter, the animal has to exist before any drawing can be done. I can't entice an animal if there is no animal to entice. But even still, whether I'm drag the thing out by the horns, or verbally entice it out, I'm still an agency doing something, it is this something I'm doing is the bit where your argument falls down.

            So too with God. He didn't manipulate creation into being out of nothingness, but commanded it to come into being out of nothingness under its own steam. The uncanny thing is that modern cosmology describes precisely how creation comes into being through its own steam, without the need for God to have manipulated it.

            Cosmology doesn't need any "command" to get the universe up and running.

            You can invoke as many words as you like to try and get yourself around the fact that you need an action from God to get your universe up and running. You say as much yourself, "The uncanny thing is that modern cosmology describes precisely how creation comes into being through its own steam, without the need for God to have manipulated it.", and all us non believers agree. It is the thing which you want to "shoehorn" into the equation that defies Ockham's Razor. There is no need for it.

            There is no shoehorning here, just a simple and straightforward corroboration of ancient doctrine by modern science.

            You can that drum until you are blue in the face. The problem you have is proving it. You haven't. God is the unnecessary premise in the cosmological argument and you have argued here for exactly that point by trying to word it in a way that God doesn't do anything.

            Let me put it another way, could your version happen without God? Is the existence of God a necessity? If God isn't doing anything, then God is redundant. Willing, commanding, talking, drawing, invoking, or whatever you want to call it, you need God. Cosmologist don't. So there is no simple and straightforward corroboration of ancient doctrine by modern science, no matter what way you want to interpret it. Further more, you are using apologetics to reword the "CREATION" story to suit modern science, which is exactly what creationists do.

            So, unless you have something new to add, we've reached that impasse, so I don't see it fruitful to continue.

            Regards.

          • Peter

            I am only going on the evidence and the evidence is that the wording of CCC 338 is corroborated by the findings of cosmology. There is nothing to reword since the wording has been there all along. It's not the wording that's been adapted to the cosmology but the cosmology which has caught up with the wording. First a universe with a beginning in time, then a universe from nothing, and now a universe which brings itself into existence.

            Modern atheism is the flip side of creationism. For both creationists and atheists the issue of God's existence hangs upon whether or not he magicked a ready-made planet or a ready-made universe into being. Much time an effort is devoted to attacking and defending this concept of God. And since such a concept is derived from the sola scriptura of Protestantism, it no surprise that this game is played out mainly in the English speaking world.

          • Ignorant Amos

            I am only going on the evidence and the , the evidence is that the wording of CCC 338 is corroborated by the findings of cosmology. There is nothing to reword since the wording has been there all along. It's not the wording that's been adapted to the cosmology but the cosmology which has caught up with the wording. First a universe with a beginning in time, then a universe from nothing, and now a universe which brings itself into existence.

            "Nothing exists that does not owe its existence to God the Creator. The world began when God’s word drew it out of nothingness; all existent beings, all of nature, and all human history are rooted in this primordial even, the very genesis by which the world was constituted and time begun."

            In the army we were always taught to keep it simple stupid. So here is how Catholic 5-11 year olds are being indoctrinated on CCC 338...

            know that God created and sustains the world.

            http://www.tere.org/index.php?id=226

            That is a cosmological argument Peter. The bit I have emphasised is the magicked part. Supernatural immaterial minds drawing stuff out by word is magic by definition.

            Where in modern cosmology does it state that the universe came into existence by natural means, on the "willing" of a god or his word?

            Modern atheism is the flip side of creationism.

            It is hard to take you seriously Peter, it is even harder when you keep asserting this nonsense. You obviously have no idea of what it is you are talking about.

            For both creationists and atheists the issue of God's existence hangs upon whether or not he magicked a ready-made planet or a ready-made universe into being.

            No the issue doesn't, and if you believe that it does then you are ignorant.

            And for the umpteenth time, you have outlined precisely how every Atheist I've encountered has understood the universe to have come into being. That is NATURALLY, then you go and ruin it by sprinkling some fairy dust on your hypothesis. You have just added the extra magic bit, you just can't, or refuse to see it. It is the non essential extra magic bit that is surplus to the discussion. There is no need to add a supernatural entity, that wills, commands, thinks, invokes, etc., the universe to begin it self creation.

            Much time an effort is devoted to attacking and defending this concept of God.

            Much of it here on SN by what I would consider otherwise intelligent human beings, who are also Catholics. How do you square that circle?

            And since such a concept is derived from the sola scriptura of Protestantism, it no surprise that this game is played out mainly in the English speaking world.

            You really don't have a clue what it is that you are taking about. The cosmological argument is ancient. Both, Plato in the 5th century BC, and Aristotle, in the 4th century BC, proposed the argument.

            Muslim scholars of the first millennia likewise.

            And your very own Catholic poster boy Thomas Aquinas' Second Way is a version of the argument.

            His [Aquinas] conception of First Cause was the idea that the Universe must have been caused by something that was itself uncaused, which he asserted was God.

            By stuffing in the caveat "ready-made" you are not going to impress anyone here. No version I've read makes that claim. Kalam certainly doesn't.

            This cosmological argument is one of which many Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and other theists all around the world believe gives proof that their version of God does exist as he is the only logical cause of all effects in our universe.

            All very much pre reformation and not so much in the English speaking world, given that neither Protestantism or the English speaking world existed.

            It's at this point I'd expect you to be off to Croydon.

          • Peter

            "There is no need to add a supernatural entity, that wills, commands, thinks, invokes, etc., the universe to begin it self creation."

            I disagree. What God does is create is the concept of the universe where otherwise there would be no concept and therefore no universe. Of course, as merely a concept it is incomplete. It is left to the universe itself to bring itself into existence and realise that concept. As CCC 302 says:

            "Creation has its own goodness and proper perfection, but it did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. The universe was created "in a state of journeying" (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it."

            It is the role of modern cosmology to show us how the universe brings itself into existence. The fact that it can do so naturally is not a denial of God. The likes of Sean Carroll are wrong when they stand up and proclaim that models describing a naturalistic universe prove that God does not exist. All they do is prove that God has not magicked the universe into existence, not that he doesn't exist.

            The creation of the concept of the universe is not fairy dust, but a very real thing. Efforts are made to explain it away by invoking an eternal universe or infinite multiverse, making the nature of reality an inexplicable brute fact.

            However, in their on-going corroboration of ancient Church doctrine, our modern cosmological models have again come to the rescue by demonstrating that the arrow of time has a beginning even in an eternal universe. And if reality has a beginning, something must have conceptualised its nature.

          • Susan

            What God does is create is the concept of the universe where otherwise there would be no concept and therefore no universe.

            Why not?

            And if reality has a beginning, something must have conceived its nature,

            Why?

          • Peter

            If reality is not a brute fact but has an absolute beginning, how do you explain it is the way it is instead of something even slightly different?

            This applies both to a single universe which begins to expand from a low entropy boundary in both directions (a la Aguirre and Gratton) and to a mutliverse where baby universes begin to branch off in opposite time directions from the parent universe (a la Carroll and Chen).

          • Susan

            If reality is not a brute fact but has an absolute beginning, how do you explain it is the way it is instead of something even slightly different?

            I didn't say I could explain anything.

            I asked you why there would be no universe without a deity conceptualizing it.

          • Ignorant Amos

            The likes of Sean Carroll are wrong when they stand up and proclaim that models describing a naturalistic universe prove that God does not exist.

            Does the likes of Sean Carroll stand up and proclaim that models describing a naturalistic universe prove that God does not exist? Or do they they actually say that gods are an unnecessary distraction that bring nothing to the table? Which they are, and they don't...any of them.

            All they do is prove that God has not magicked the universe into existence, not that he doesn't exist.

            Indeed, and that is all any non believer is saying when it comes to cosmology. It is the philosophers of religion that are positing the magicked universe into existence by gods part. Even if the god hypothesis was true, it doesn't get you to the god of Catholicism any more than any other creation myth deity.

          • Ignorant Amos

            However, in their on-going corroboration of ancient doctrine,...

            The modern cosmological models do not corroborate ancient doctrine. Ancient doctrine has had to be moved from the inerrant word of God to the realm of the symbolic, or at least the cherry picked parts have been. Theological apologetics has had to manipulate scripture to fit science to shoehorn in your god of the gaps. But as I should you earlier. What you describe is not Catholic teaching.

            know that God created and sustains the world.

            Not, God allowed the universe to create itself naturally and left it to its own devices.

            ...our modern cosmological models have again come to the rescue by demonstrating that the arrow of time has a beginning even in an eternal universe.

            Word salad again.

            And if reality has a beginning, something must have conceived its nature, and to conceive is the property of a Mind.

            But you have said numerous times that the universe could get going by natural means. You are playing semantic billiards. Willed, command, draw, said, called, or now its conceived. Call it what you wish, it still means the same, god-did-it...which is a cosmological argument a la Aquinas or Kalam.

            BTW, what is a mind a property of?

          • Peter

            Again, I can only follow the evidence and the evidence from the latest cosmological models is that creation has a beginning. If creation is no longer a brute fact there must be an explanation, not for its coming into existence because to does so naturally, but for its particular nature.

            A universe which brings itself into existence from nothing must have a blueprint to explain the kind of thing it brings itself into existence as. This is where your argument - that a self-creating universe doesn't need God as an additional explanation - falls down.

            You fail to explain why something which has come into existence through its own means has come into existence as the universe. You assume a blueprint upon which what turns out to be the universe naturally constructs itself, yet you give no thought to how and why that blueprint should exist in the first place.

            Cosmologists proclaim that their naturalistic models of the universe have made God redundant as an efficient cause, but they cannot explain the blueprint upon which what is modelled turns out to be the universe. Until such a time as they discover an alternative source of that blueprint, they have no right to dismiss God.

          • Ignorant Amos

            Again, in response to your two posts, I can only follow the evidence and the evidence from the latest cosmological models is that creation has a beginning.

            Cosmological models are NOT evidence Peter,they are unconfirmed hypotheses. Perhaps this is your failure, understanding evidence.

            If creation is no longer a brute fact there must be an explanation, not for its coming into existence because to does so naturally, but for its particular nature.

            That explanation is unknown at present, if there is an explanation. It may never be known. You can use the place holder "God" if you wish. I'm not that hung up. I'll use "Joe Pesci"...but any collection of letters will do, it doesn't matter. What you can't get away with is associating your place holder with all the other nonsense afforded the same three letters as your place holder for the explanation for what came prior to the universe creating itself.

            A universe which brings itself into existence from nothing must have a blueprint to explain the kind of thing it brings itself into existence as.

            To begin with, it is unlikely that the universe brought itself out of nothing. That is your assertion. Some Cosmologists say otherwise. If you want to change the name of you place holder to "blueprint" go right ahead, I'll stick with "Joe Pesci", as I said, it matters not a jot.

            This is where your argument - that a self-creating universe doesn't need God as an additional explanation - falls down.

            No it doesn't Peter. In light of current knowledge, that is as far as any rational person can take it. I can just as easily state that your God needs an explanation. I know the stock answer, but tell me in your own words why your explanation doesn't require an explanation, or that further explanation an explanation, or blueprint if you like?

            You fail to explain why something which has come into existence through its own means has come into existence as the universe.

            Why would I need to? It is self explanatory. If it was something which has come into existence through its own means has come into existence as "Russell's Flying Teapot", it wouldn't need an explanation either. Furthermore, you and I wouldn't be here discussing it.

            You assume a blueprint, upon which what turns out to be the universe has naturally constructed itself, yet you give no thought to how and why that blueprint should exist in the first place.

            I don't assume anything of the kind. You are doing all the assuming. You know the pitfalls in which to "ASS-U-ME" anything leads? But there you go again, words like "blueprint", "exist", "place", like it means something it doesn't. Cosmologists don't know, I don't know, and you certainly don't know. But you and your religion are making stuff up. You are making stuff up based on ancient and highly unreliable texts. Texts that are now understood to have come from feeble minded human beings trying to answer big questions with limited or no knowledge. Scientists don't know lots of stuff, but they are getting their sleeves rolled and getting down to the hard graft of trying to find out. What they are not doing, is positing gods as the answer, as many lazy folk have been doing, and still are to this day. Religion retards the questions, science searches for the answers.

            Cosmologists proclaim that their naturalistic models of the universe have made God redundant as an efficient cause, but they cannot explain the blueprint upon which what is modelled turns out to be the universe.

            Your own comments of how the universe came into being naturally have made gods redundant. You have introduced all sorts of semantics over the course of this discussion, the latest fad word is "blueprint", but it does not further your conjectured assertions.

            Until such a time as they discover an alternative source of that blueprint, they have no right to dismiss God.

            Until such a time as they discover an alternative source of that blueprint, you have no right to imply God. Especially the particular god of Roman Catholicism.

          • Peter

            All cosmological models involve a beginning of the arrow of time. Since not even a "before" exists with respect to the beginning of the arrow of time, how can there be anything in a "before" which does not exist? There is nothing until the beginning of the arrow of time. Therefore all cosmological models have a beginning from nothing, even the so-called eternal ones where the arrow of time begins to run both in reverse into the distant past and forward into the distant future.

            These so-called eternal models are used to describe how there is no need for a God to have started them with the aim of rendering God superfluous. However, despite the claims of their promoters, these models are not brute facts in themselves; they require an explanation for their beginning. Even through, as in the Hartle-Hawking model, we can explain how a universe spontaneously creates itself from nothing, we cannot yet explain how it acquires its initial low entropy configuration.

            Although it could just be a matter of time before we reveal how the universe constructs its initial low entropy, a question remains. What is it that determines the blueprint for that unique initial configuration? Don’t confuse the blueprint of something with its construction, even if it constructs itself. The blueprint is the idea that it should be in one particular configuration instead of countless others, an idea which the universe realises by constructing itself in that way.

            Despite all our science we still cannot escape the fact that creation has a beginning out of nothing, precisely in line with doctrine. Furthermore, also consistent with doctrine, God creates the idea of the universe and the universe responds by creating itself naturally according to that idea. No matter how far back science takes us to revealing how the universe creates itself, the idea still remains.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Your claim appears to be false. Just out of curiosity, I polled the physics departments at Stanford and MIT, where I have contacts. In general, nobody cared about the Kalam, and most of them didn't know what it was.

            And interestingly, the Kalam fails for a reason you didn't even mention: it relies on a sleight-of-hand equivocation of terms.

          • Michael Murray

            Very early on on these boards we had a guy under the name PhysicistDave who posted a nice explanation of why the vast majority of physicists don't even think about these things. But the message has never got through that most physicists would regard arguments like Kalam as "not even wrong" and throw them in the pile with the crackpot manuscripts on the last unified field theory of triangles. I should try and find it again. It was ignored of course.

          • Peter

            But that doesn't stop the likes of Sean Carroll and Lawrence Krauss from going to the trouble of debating William Lane Craig over it.

          • Michael Murray

            Yes but I doubt it is because they think WLC is a serious physicist worth talking to about the structure of the universe. Both Krauss and Carroll have interests in rationality and atheism. In fact Carroll says

            The guy is a very polished public speaker, and he is certainly an expert in this format. But I have the overwhelming advantage of being right. If I thought WLC were right, I would just change my views. Since I don’t, my goal is to explain why not, as clearly as possible.

            So not exactly going to get new insights from WLC on the nature of reality was he ?

          • Peter

            The Kalam argument was important enough for Sean Carroll to have a recent debate with William Lane Craig over it.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            "In the beginning, God created..."
            Gee, sounds like a universe magicked into existence to me. Or has the Catholic church jettisoned Genesis?

          • Peter

            The Church teaches that Genesis uses symbolic language.

          • Ignorant Amos

            It does now, but then advances in human understanding and science leaves it no choice.

            Was Adam, Eve, and the original sin symbolic?

          • Michael Murray

            Yep. It's not just snakes. It's any manufacturer of reptilian products. Or am am I getting my stories confused?

          • Ignorant Amos

            "In the beginning, God created..."
            Gee, sounds like a universe magicked into existence to me.

            Or the bits that sound like a magician performing...

            And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

            And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.”

            And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.”

            And so on, and so forth, over quite a few verses. Apart from...

            Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

            But then God it goes back to the singular...

            God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

            A bit of an enigma. Anyway, God "making and magicking" stuff, but definitely no "willing" being mentioned.

            Or has the Catholic church jettisoned Genesis?

            Not jettisoned, bits cherry picked, and the rest theologised.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            No, actually it hasn't been proved to be correct. All we know now is that our theories break down when we get within a planck-second of the Bang. Nothing is proved. And indeed, so far as any of our theories run, time didn't have a beginning. How could it? There was never a moment in time when the universe did not exist.
            You are certainly welcome to your teaching and your doctrine, but to claim that science supports you is false.

          • Peter

            "There was never a moment in time when the universe did not exist"

            I agree, and time began to exist when the universe.began to exist.

        • So why bother with God? What does God do?

          • Peter

            Why does God have to "do" anything? He wills the universe into being and it is the universe itself which does the "doing" by bringing itself into existence in a natural way.

            Why would an omnipotent God have to do anything himself when he can simply will creation itself to do the doing? Surely, if he had to do things himself he would not be omnipotent.

            If creation did not respond to God's will so that, instead of creating itself, God had to supernaturally manipulate a ready-made early universe himself, then, to the extent that creation is unresponsive to his call, God would be deemed to be less than omnipotent.

          • If God's powerful enough that he doesn't need to do anything, maybe he's so powerful that he doesn't even need to exist in order to let creation do its thing?

          • Peter

            God does not exist in the sense that we understand existing as being contingent on something. If God were contingent on something he would not be omnipotent and could not command creation. In that sense God does not exist.

          • Then I wonder what it matter whether he exists at all. Don't get me wrong, I think it would be wonderful if all theists took your position on this. I just wonder, why bother worring about God, whether he exists or not? Even if we are not so pragmatic, and simply want to know the truth for the truth's sake, how could we ever know whether there is a God or not?

          • Peter

            I believe God reveals himself as Creator through the sheer subtlety of his creation which transcends the understanding of time which we as entities embedded in time possess.

            Examples include a universe which creates itself from nothing through laws which are simultaneously the cause and effect of that universe. Or a time-symmetric universe where, depending on perspective, an eternally contracting universe is equal to an eternally expanding one.

            Just as the configuration of the expanding universe is determined by the type of low entropy boundary it departed from, so too does configuration of the contracting universe, being the same as that of the expanding universe, predetermine the type of low entropy boundary it is contracting to. thus the low entropy bopundary is the simultaneous cause of

          • Ignorant Amos

            Why does God have to "do" anything? He wills the universe into being and it is the universe itself which does the "doing" by bringing itself into existence in a natural way.

            So the universe is bringing itself into existence in a natural way?

            Define "will", as in "He wills the universe into being"?

            Why would an omnipotent God have to do anything himself when he can simply let creation itself do the doing? Surely, if he had to do things himself he would not be omnipotent.

            Exactly as it would appear without any god involvement.

            I think you may be overstepping the Catholic remit here Peter, but I like it.

          • Peter

            I am not overstepping the remit because doctrine holds that God is omnipotent. On the contrary, any suggestion that God is less than omnipotent would be overstepping it.

            If God is omnipotent, why would he need to be involved? All he needs is a thought and it is creation itself which does the involving by realising its own existence though its own means.

            And if you ask what those means are, the answer is that they are naturalistic means which we are discovering little by little through science and philosophy.

            God is utterly sovereign so creation obeys his every command including lifting itself up by its own bootstraps.

    • Michael Murray

      I have no idea what neo-athiesm is.

      New atheism, as it is often called, is a reaction to both creationism and 9/11. It's characterised often by a refusal to recognise that religious beliefs hold a privileged status in society which means they cannot be openly challenged lest it causes offence.

      Creationism is primarily a US phenomena so cannot be the oxygen on which new atheists thrive. There is a world outside the US you know and attitudes to religion in the non-US part of the developed world are quite different.

    • Ignorant Amos

      It seems to me they need each other in a never-ending money-making racket which,...

      Unlike the RCC, who just needed the gullible for their never-ending money-making racket.

  • Tom Rafferty

    Wow. Such a long article on such a simple subject. A --- theist is no belief in a god. ANYTHING added to this definition, of course, is fodder for a pointless discussion.

    • Tim Dacey

      Ironically you still find this 'pointless discussion' meaningful enough to post a comment

      • Tom Rafferty

        Yes, because the article is a great deal of writing unnecessarily. I believe making such a lengthy article on such a simply definition is a waste of time. So, I can justify the reason for my brief reply.

        • Tim Dacey

          I can't understand this double standard. I find it strange that those individuals who are quick to press the Theist to properly define abstract definitions within Christian Theology (e.g., what/who is God?) when those abstract definitions seem pretty clear to the Theist. But when it comes time for someone like you to properly define their 'atheism', then you resort to a 'isn't it obvious?' response.

    • HowardRichards

      Well, no. By your definition, every agnostic is an atheist. Many agnostics would not agree with that characterization.

      In fact, the whole problem comes with trying to capture all the precise meaning of someone's position in a single word. This is a problem that happens all the time. The disagreements about the meanings of "Christian", "Jewish", "conservative", and "American" are all much larger than disagreements about "atheist".

      As a result, when dealing with a real person it helps to find out what he or she really thinks. Trying to find one magic word that captures everything is not a good use of time.

      • cminca

        Atheist--one without a belief in god.
        Agnostic--one who does not know if there is, or is not, a god.
        They aren't the same. There should be no confusion. Even without thousands of words.

        • HowardRichards

          Define Set A as the set of all people who lack a belief in any god. Define Set B as the set of all people who do not know if there is or is not any god. Set B is clearly a subset of Set A.

          I agree that Set B is the set of agnostics. However, some people (including both people who call themselves atheists and people who call themselves agnostics) call every member of Set A an atheist, whereas others call only members of the set difference B ∖ A atheists.

          • Ignorant Amos

            By definition, everyone is in set B...we are all Agnostic.

          • Howard

            I don't agree, but setting that aside: Do you conclude, as cminca and Tom Rafferty would, that we are then also all atheists?

          • Ignorant Amos

            I don't agree, but setting that aside:

            Agree or not, it is what it is.

            Agnostic theism: The view of those who do not claim to know of the existence of any deity, but still believe in such an existence.

            Agnostic atheism: The view of those who do not believe in the existence of any deity, but do not claim to know if a deity does or does not exist.

            I myself don't agree, but if definitions are getting bound about as wanton as they are, then yes everyone can be placed in Set B.

            Do you conclude, as cminca and Tom Rafferty would, that we are then also all atheists?

            Is that what those folk conclude? I'm not sure it is, but if it is, no, I don't agree.

            I think the confusion is, that not all agnostics are atheists, but all atheists are agnostics, as stated by HowardRichards in his comment.

            " By your definition, every agnostic is an atheist."

          • cminca

            "I think the confusion is, that not all agnostics are atheists, but all atheists are agnostics, as stated by HowardRichards in his comment."
            You're correct, but Howard is wrong.

          • Howard

            "Agree or not, it is what it is." I can simply assert that you are wrong just as easily as you can simply assert that I am wrong. That really becomes a pointless shouting match.

            I think the disagreement about Set B has to do with a difference in the relative certainty implied by the words "know" and "believe". You use "believe" as a synonym with "suspect", the same way we might say, "I believe this was the last snow of this winter," meaning the same thing as, "I suspect this was the last snow of this winter." That, however, is not how the word is used in, for example, a credal affirmation.

            Again, you can affirm that no matter what anyone says, no one really knows that God exists, but some people fool themselves by pretending He does. I can counter that by affirming that no matter what anyone says, everyone really knows that God exists, but some people fool themselves by pretending He does not. Such an exchange is entirely useless.

          • cminca

            Not necessarily. People who are believers could not be described as one "who does not know".

          • Ignorant Amos

            Yeah, I know that is right in principle. What I was getting at is whether they "believe" they know is academic. They can't possibly know, just saying it is so doesn't count. But I get where you are coming.

          • cminca

            "Set B is clearly a subset of Set A."
            No it isn't.
            Set A doesn't believe milk is good for you.
            Set B believes milk may, or may not, be good for you.
            They aren't the same.

          • Stephen Bulivant

            You're right that they're not the same, but - HowardRichards is quite correct - B is indeed a subset of Set A. All Set Bs are necessarily Set As, but not all Set As are Set Bs.

          • Sqrat

            No, cminca is correct. Set B consists of people who do not claim to know if there is a God (or rather, more strictly, of people who assert that whether God exists or what he is like are not things that can be known). Within set B you may have people who believe that God exists (although they don't claim to know that he exists), people who believe that God does not exist (although they don't claim to know that he doesn't exist), and people who are undecided as to whether God exists (part of Set A). Sets A and B partly overlap, one is not a subset of the other.

      • Tom Rafferty

        "By your definition, --- " No, by THE definition. You are making my point by adding qualifiers. Atheist perfectly describes one who does not accept a belief in a god. It doesn't say ANYTHING else about the person.

        • HowardRichards

          "THE" definition? Let's just say I'm agnostic about the existence of the One True Definition of the word. There exist people who use the word differently, but perhaps you consider them linguistic infidels.

          • Tom Rafferty

            Simple: a person either believes there is a god or not. The former is a theist, the latter an atheist.

            One cannot say anything more about the person and theistic beliefs without asking more questions. For example, "Do you 'know' (are certain) there is a god or not (gnostic or agnostic)?" Or, "WHY do you believe, or not believe, in a god?"

            Added to the above would be a virtual infinity of possibilities if one where to ask a theist WHAT type of theist one is.

            An atheist does not belief in any god(s) ----- period, whereas, the theist needs to explain WHAT god(s). The former does not need to add anything to his/her statement of belief. The latter needs to specify from tens of thousands of deities, with the Christian further needing to specific from tens of thousands of denominations.

            Perhaps our disagreement over the definition of atheist stems from the fact that theists are used to explaining in detail exactly WHAT god they believe in, since there is much disagreement over what god is the "True" one.

            Had the title of the post been, "How should we define "Theism?", then the length of the post would have been about as long as the Bible, and all other religious Scriptures, combined. I hope you can see that describing the absence of a belief is much easier and shorter.

          • Howard

            "Simple: a person either believes there is a god or not." Even that statement is ambiguous. To what does the "not" attach? Is it, "A person either believes that there is a god, or else he believes there is not a god," or, "A person either believes that there is a god, or else he does not believe there is a god"?

            Then you go on to make it clear that you consider "belief" to be a vague suspicion that is less than "knowledge". The word is used that way in some contexts, but not in the religious context. If we use it in your sense, though, it makes the problem even harder, because it becomes a fuzzy concept. For example, a mountain climber may affirm that he is an atheist but offer incense at a Buddhist shrine at one of the base camps of Mt. Everest "just in case" or "for good luck". (This kind of thing happens all the time.) No matter what he says at sea level, you would have to conclude that he has SOME degree of nagging suspicion, so he is NOT an atheist. Is this a useful way to use the word?

          • Tom Rafferty

            Superstitious behavior is a separate category from belief. You fail to see the simple binary aspect of a belief in a god(s).

          • HowardRichards

            That's because reality does not respect your simple binaries. It is a continuum that goes from absolutely convinced that a god exists, to suspecting a god exists, to completely unsure, to suspecting no god exists, to absolutely convinced no god exists. You are attempting to pigeon-hole reality into a simplistic framework. We all have to do a little of that, but we usually find that our pigeon-holes really say more about us than about reality. For example, in the late 1800s there seemed to be a fairly sharp boundary between planets, asteroids, and comets. Now we know that there are things that are about halfway between an asteroid and a comet (burnt out comets, Centaurs, etc.) and things that are about halfway between a planet and a comet (Kuiper Belt Objects). Or, if you like, I can define "blue" to mean a certain range of the spectrum and "green" to mean a different range, but that says something about me, not about the spectrum. Other people would draw the boundaries in other places; some cultures do not recognize a distinction between blue and green at all.

          • Tom Rafferty

            Sorry, we disagree. For the last time, "atheist" means "a" = "without"; "theist" = "god believer". You need to listen to atheists more on the subject.

          • HowardRichards

            I know the etymology, but there is more to word meaning that etymology.

            For the last time, the complement of a fuzzy set is a fuzzy set. Very few things in the real world are sharp and clear -- least of all the range of human opinions.

          • Tom Rafferty

            My last comment on this post. First of all, ask an atheist how to define it, instead of theists.

            "The only common thread that ties all atheists together is a lack of
            belief in gods and supernatural beings. Some of the best debates we have
            ever had have been with fellow atheists. This is because atheists do
            not have a common belief system, sacred scripture or atheist Pope. This
            means atheists often disagree on many issues and ideas. Atheists come in a variety of shapes, colors, beliefs, convictions, and backgrounds. We are as unique as our fingerprints."

            http://www.atheists.org/activism/resources/what-is-atheism

          • Michael Bren

            Of course, the link to the site you gave then offers this...Madalyn Murray's opening argument for Abington School District v. Schempp (although arguably Murray v. Curlett became the more famous of the two).

            "Your petitioners are atheists and they define their beliefs as follows:
            An atheist loves his fellow man instead of god. An atheist believes that heaven is something for which we should work now – here on earth for all men together to enjoy. An atheist believes that he can get no help through prayer but that he must find in himself the inner conviction and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue it, and enjoy it. An atheist believes that only in a knowledge of himself and a knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help to a life of fulfillment. He seeks to know himself and his fellow man rather than to know a god. An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated. He wants man to understand and love man. He wants an ethical way of life. He believes that we cannot rely on a god or channel action into prayer nor hope for an end of troubles in a hereafter. He believes that we are ourbrother's keepers and are keepers of our own lives; that we are responsible persons and the job is here and the time is now."

            Also, the fact that one can got to reddit everyday and watch atheists argue over what the definition of atheism is kind of blows the arguments in your posts away as well...

          • Michael Bren

            Buddhists are atheists...

          • Howard

            They're pretty close to nihilists, it seems to me; or at least the difference between "proper" Buddhism and nihilism is a small one. I get the impression, though, that Tibetan Buddhism is like Japanese Buddhism in that it incorporates a lot of the native religion, producing a hybrid that is quite different from what Gautama taught.

    • Roman

      Wow. Such a long article on such a simple subject. A --- theist is one without a belief in a god. ANYTHING added to this definition, of course, is fodder for a pointless discussion.

      Richard Dawkins suggests a numerical scale to describe different levels of atheism. Do you disagree with him as well?

      • M. Solange O’Brien

        I believe his was a confidence scale. Not an atheist scale per se - though I could be wrong.

      • Tom Rafferty

        The level of evidence at which someone accepts a deity is individual. However, this has nothing to do with the definition of atheism itself.