• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Varieties of (Non)Belief

by  
Filed under Belief

Atheism

NOTE: Today we share a guest post from one of our non-theist commenters, Paul Rimmer.
 


 
Does the world need another article on how to define atheism? Does Strange Notions? These questions had to open the article, in part because there have already been several different Strange Notions articles on how to define atheists, including the most recent article about self-identified atheists who believe in God.

Yet here I am, talking about how to define the terms “atheist”, “theist”, and “agnostic”, in an article that may look at the end like a religiously oriented Cosmopolitan quiz. I write this article anyway, because I believe that there is a good reason for so many articles on this topic.

I don’t think the lines that divide Catholics and atheists are the same lines for every Catholic and every atheist, because Catholicism and atheism are very diverse perspectives, and because it’s not all about belief. If you disagree, if you think the dividing line is all about belief, then read only the next section of this article ("If It’s All About Belief..."). Please skip the rest of the article.

If, however, you agree with me that there are more dimensions to the dividing lines between Catholicism and atheism, you are encouraged read the entire article. You are also encouraged to leave comments. I promise to read them and to adjust my views based on reasonable and convincing argument. As far as this article is concerned, charity is for people, not for ideas. Don’t insult my parentage, but please be as harsh as you will to my ideas. If my ideas are any good, they will stand the heat.

Why should you listen to me? After all, I’m a scientist and not a theologian. I suspect, though, that scientists, rather than theologians, would succeed with this sort of task. A large part of science is categorizing things. The judgment of the reader will determine whether this scientist is any good at categorizing people.

For the purposes of this article, there will be only one deity to consider: The Christian God as described by the Nicene Creed. This is admittedly a vast over-simplification. I will offer some concluding remarks about how the labels introduced here can be broadened in order to account for alternative religions and belief-systems, such as Islam or Buddhism.

If It’s All About Belief...

 
If you think that atheism vs. theism is completely and simply about belief, I won’t fight you on that. Such a fight would likely fail to advance the discussion, even if I were to successfully convince you that there are more dimensions to the question of God’s existence than simply believing or not. What I will do is provide what I think to be the best ways to define atheism, theism, and agnosticism, if the discussion is all about belief. This system has the advantage of being accepted by most atheists and several theists.

In this system, there are two dimensions regarding belief. First is the presence of the belief itself. If I ask you whether you believe that God exists, do you say “yes” or “no”? If you say “yes” then you are a theist. If you say “no” then you are an atheist. That’s it. If you can’t say either “yes” or “no”, then you can come up with a new colorful term for your position, such as igtheist.

The second dimension is the level of confidence in that belief. If you are certain that your belief is correct, then you are a gnostic. If you are uncertain about whether your belief is correct, then you are an agnostic. Thus there are four options:

  1. Gnostic Theist: You believe that God exists and are certain in your belief.
  2. Agnostic Theist: You believe that God exists but are uncertain in your belief.
  3. Agnostic Atheist: You believe that God does not exist but are uncertain in your belief.
  4. Gnostic Atheist: You believe that God does not exist and are certain in your belief.

If you think that the only or at least the key division between theism and atheism is along the lines of belief, then this is the system for you. Even if you agree with me that there are more (and maybe more important) dimensions to the issue, you should still find out where you fit in this system, because one of the big advantages of labels is convenience, and as I said, most atheists and several theists know and use this convention for applying the labels atheist, theist, and agnostic.

But Maybe It's Not All About Belief

 
I am going to propose to you now that belief isn’t the only issue, and, even more, that it isn’t the most important. Certainly belief is one important dividing issue between atheists and theists, and it may be the most obvious, but as I listen to various atheists and theists talk about their beliefs, I see signs of other dimensions, other divisions between atheists and theists, and also interesting similarities between the two groups. Most theists I know and count as friends would have more in common with Richard Dawkins than with Bill O’Reilly on the question of truth (see this video, for example). The important dimensions to the question of God’s existence are three, as I count them:

1. Do you believe that God exists?
This is an obvious point of division.

2. Do you want God to exist?
In other words, would you prefer to live in a world where there was an all-powerful, fatherly God who loves us unconditionally and who sent his son to die for us? Do you want to live in a world where you may be held accountable, even eternally accountable, for your beliefs and actions?

3. Do you live as though God existed?
The knowledge that God loves and cares for you, and wants you to enjoy his presence for all eternity, and expects you to live a life in obedience to his authority will entail a way of life that is noticeably and radically distinct from the way many people in the world, including many people who would be theists under the beliefs-only definition, presently live their lives. Now, maybe a die-hard atheist will live a life consistent with the existence of the Christian God. Why not? Maybe she lives this life because of a self-consistent ethics that has nothing to do with God. It just so happens to involve actions that are more-or-less aligned to actions performed by practicing theists. That’s all that’s required. I will say that most atheists I know live lives that closely approximate the ideal Christian life.

These three dimensions leave us eight options, for which I apply various labels already in existence, although I may be using these terms in a manner that somewhat departs from convention. Where possible, I will also provide the name of a prominent philosopher or theologian who seems to fit the particular label. This is the Cosmo Quiz portion of the article, and when you the reader disagree with my assessment, either of the terms used or philosophers assigned, please let me know in the comments.

Satisfied Theist: This is someone who believes that God exists, wishes that God existed, and lives as though God exists. This is the simple Catholic life, portrayed well by many common parishioners and by the present Pope Francis.

Apatheist: Someone who believes that God exists and wishes that God existed, but doesn’t live as though God exists—what the Catechism of the Catholic Church labels “practical atheists” (CCC 2128). These are people for whom religion has no real affect on their public life or on their activity outside of maybe some ritual observance. God is like a sports mascot and religion their sports team. I won’t dare to name anyone who fits this label, although I imagine many Christians do. This is, however, the ideal form of religion as envisioned by Daniel Dennett.

Reluctant Theist: This is someone who believes God exists and lives as though God exists, but she wishes God didn’t exist. Maybe she wishes God were different. She may struggle with divine hiddenness and the problem of evil, not as evidence against God’s existence but as strong arguments against God’s goodness and loving-kindness. A good and loving God would not allow for childhood leukemia and would reveal Himself to those whom He loves, like any kind father. I would tentatively assign Oscar Wilde this label.

Agnostic: Someone who wants God to exist and lives as though God exists, but doesn’t think God exists. People who don’t think God exists may want God to exist and live pretty-much the same way whether God exists or not. Massimo Pigliucci seems to be an agnostic in this sense.

Misotheist: This rare position includes someone who believes God exists but wishes He didn’t, and who doesn’t live as though God existed. This is someone who is opposed to God. The easiest example would be Lucifer. An example closer to home would be Arthur Schopenhauer.

Pessimist: Someone who doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t live as though God existed, but wishes He did. The pessimist tends to live out in the bitter cold winds of truth instead of the enclosed and suffocating warmth provided by pious illusion. I would think Bertrand Russell to be a pessimist in this sense.

Atheist: Someone who lives as though God exists, although she doesn’t believe in God and hopes that she’s right. Many people who hold this view can seem God-intoxicated, and anti-theistic, opposed not to God but to theism itself, because theism supports an immoral God. This apparent obsession is often, as I discern, a result of strong moral intuition. It is in fact the atheist’s right moral sense that leads her to deny God’s existence. Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are prime examples of atheists.

Nihilist: This person doesn’t believe in God, doesn’t want God, and doesn’t live like God exists. In my opinion, this is at its very heart a hopeless position, but maybe I lack the imagination to see how it would work out. My strong opinion may be due to the fact that I have no friends and know of no philosophers who actually hold to this position. Nietzsche is thought to deserve this label, although I suspect this is a misunderstanding of his philosophy. The closest actual example might be Ayn Rand, a hopeless philosopher if ever there was one.

I speculate that the former way of labeling positions on God, based only on belief, seems a very Protestant way of doing things. Protestants traditionally emphasize faith alone above the other cardinal virtues of hope and love. Giving a place for hope and love seems to be a more universal, or Catholic, approach to the question of theism and atheism. Also, no one is bound to use my terms, although I think that the traditional usage of most of these labels is at least reasonably well approximated by my new descriptions

As promised, I will now show by a single example how these labels can be generalized in order to encapsulate other religions, or at least other theistic religions. Someone might, for example, be a theist with respect to the Christian God, but a nihilist with respect to the Muslim God. She would, in other words, derive her hope and purpose of life from her Christian beliefs, and derive no hope or guidance from Islamic beliefs, except where the two beliefs overlap.

A strong note of warning: Whatever system of labels you accept, respect what other people want to be called. If someone wants to be called an atheist or an agnostic, or doesn’t want labels altogether, respect their choice and abide by it, at least when talking to them.

I will end this article by emphasizing the great overlap between many theists and many atheists, and it is on the most important of all the virtues, that of love. I was a member of the Christian Graduate Student Alliance at Ohio State University, and was also closely involved with the Secular Student Alliance there, a group of atheists and agnostics that had among their number not a few who denied the historicity of Jesus. The Secular Student Alliance at OSU became involved with a Lutheran Church on a trip to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and worked alongside Christians of various denominations to provide relief to fellow humans. This is in my mind a rich picture of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus said that his true disciples would be known by their love. How interesting, how strangely beautiful, that maybe some of Christ’s truest disciples alive today are not convinced that he even existed.
 
 
(Image credit: Kill ADJ)

Paul Rimmer

Written by

Paul Rimmer is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St Andrews. He investigates chemical tracers of lightning on exoplanets and what that chemistry might reveal about the origin of life on Earth. He received his BS in Physics from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and his PhD in Physics from The Ohio State University. He is interested in the dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholics on the existence and nature of God, and on improving the tone and quality of that dialogue on both sides. Paul is an ex-Catholic.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • MrsWolf

    I really like this article and the way you break down differing values and beliefs. However, I have an issue with your third question. I think asking "Do you live as though God existed" is not the right question. Because my answer to that would be another question - which god(s)? Do I live as though the Catholic God exists? No - I use contraception; I believe that abortion should be legal; I support marriage equality for same-sex couples. To name a few. And my life is not lived in obedience to a non-existent deity.

    If, however, the question becomes "Do you live your life in a way that reflects principles of love, compassion, and helping others (charity)?" then my answer would be yes. Many would argue (and with some justification) that these are Christian values (at least as seen in the life of Jesus of Nazareth).

    So, although I would answer "no" to all three questions, I don't belong in the nihilist category. I belong in the atheist category.

    -- Heather

    • Heather, you raise a critical issue. I did anticipate this weakness in my approach, and tried to address it in the article in three places: First, by acknowledging that some people (ignostics) don't really abide by this system at all, because they don't accept that there is a cogent definition of God. Second, by admitting the simplifying assumption at the beginning of the article, that I will only consider the Catholic God. Thirdly, I try to show in a vague way near the end of the article how this method can incorporate various religions. The illustration in the article is vague because I haven't worked out all the details yet. I don't, for example, live as though the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) exists, don't hope it exists and don't believe it exists. It seems strange to call myself a FSM-nihilist. This is something in my approach that requires improvement, and I would be happy to hear from you about how you would change things to fix some of these problems.

      You also raise a point about "living as though the Catholic God exists", with respect to contraception and gay marriage. When I say "living as though X exists", I don't mean living perfectly as though X exists, but would instead mean a general correspondence. No Catholic perfectly follows what the Catholic Church teaches, and the whole system would be useless for categorising if this requirement were held so stringently. I would qualify myself as living as though the Catholic God existed, more or less, even though I support contraception and gay marriage.

      That said, I am friends with atheists who avoid contraception, not for moral reasons, but for perceived health reasons. Although their reasoning doesn't match that of the practicing Catholic, their actions do.

      I would argue that, from your answers, you live as though God exists, although your actions are probably grounded in very different reasons than a theist would. Maybe your reasons for living compassionately would contradict God's existence. But the question of living as though God exists, applied in a broad way, as I intend it, is concerned only the particular actions and not the motivation for those actions.

      I would strongly agree, even by my system of categorizing these things, you would be an atheist. Maybe better stated an atheist with respect to a Mainline Protestant conception of God, and a nihilist with respect to the Catholic God (although here, I do admit, my system needs some serious improvement).

      • MrsWolf

        Paul, thanks for your thoughtful reply.

        I had to look up "ignosticism," because I have heard the term used before, but didn't really know what it meant. I feel like I agree with this stance quite a bit. It's impossible to discuss "God" without first defining what is meant by "God" for each particular person. Which, of course, is consistent with your point that ignostics would have no use for the classification system you discuss, since the sentence "God exists" is meaningless.

        I would agree that my actions are generally consistent with liberal Protestantism, but I guess I chafe at that being called "living as though God exists," since my reasons for living the way I do have nothing to do with God. But that is simply an emotional reaction, so I concede your point.

        While I agree with you that many Catholics do not follow the teachings of the Catholic Church, I would suggest that the difference between Catholics and me is that most Catholics would say that they agree with the teachings of the Church while being unable/unwilling to follow those teachings. I feel like that is a critical distinction. I feel no guilt for using contraception. I would imagine that many Catholics who use contraception feel guilty for doing so. After all, none of us humans are perfect, and we all fail to live up to our own moral codes and values from time to time. I experience guilt and remorse when I fail at living up to my values, and I expect religious people have the same experiences. But I feel absolutely zero guilt for not adhering to the Catholic prohibition of contraception, so, I would argue, my experience is different than theirs.

        Interesting discussion.

        -- Heather

    • jakael02

      Catholics believe when someone acts on abortion, SS marriage, etc. are not acts of love, compassion, and/or helping others. So our definition of love/charity doesn't equal each others. Thus, the classification becomes even more difficult since what Catholics consider charity is different from your definition of charity.

      • MrsWolf

        Well, I didn't give a definition of charity (nor did you), so I'm not sure how you can make that assertion.

        However, I suspect you are right, since I have seen enough acts of "love/charity" from religious people that I would definitely call neither loving nor charitable. Like telling someone who is (born) gay that they are broken and need to be fixed. And if they can't be "fixed," they should be relegated to a life that is less than what is permitted of other people (i.e. - straight people) - no marriage (and thus, no sex), no children.

        No wonder LGBT people have high rates of suicide and drug abuse. It must be hard to live your whole life thinking you are irredeemably broken.

        • jakael02

          So we do agree charity is relative when you don't subscribe to God. I must say I don't view people with same-sex attraction in the view you described.

          • MrsWolf

            I don't think I said charity is relative. I said that our definitions of charity are likely different. Also, I don't use charity and love as synonyms, although they share many characteristics in common.

            Here's my definition of charity: giving up something that I value (time, money, possessions) in order to help/meet the needs of someone (human or non-human) that I don't know and who can never repay me, without expecting or wanting anything in return.

            I practice this *every day* of my life.

          • jakael02

            I like your definition of charity and it's good to hear you practice it. Your likely a much better person than I am. I may be generically using love & charity as synonyms. However, I assume your moral views are much different than mine & therefore that's how I arrived that our views are ultimately relativistic. Maybe I'm wrong.

            As you likely know - Catholics, ultimately, can not earn salvation via works. So no matter how "Mother Teresa" I become; it's not earning me salvation. However, loving God for God's sake and cooperating with his grace is Catholics means to salvation. Thus, is supposed to leads to works of love/charity with a definition similar to yours and moral absolutism.

            You probably witness many Catholics doing little with regards to charity/love/faith and that should be a reflection of their poor witness; not a weakness of the Catholic faith/teaching.

          • MrsWolf

            "So no matter how "Mother Teresa" I become; it's not earning me salvation"

            Of course not. Charity doesn't *earn* you anything - that's the "not expecting or wanting anything in return" part. This statement underscores what I perceive as selfishness on the part of theist. Any good done by them has a selfish and self-centred goal of earning them their spot in Heaven. If you have to be threatened with eternal damnation (or bribed with eternal salvation) to be a good person, you are not a good person.

            "However, loving God for God's sake and cooperating with his grace is Catholics means to salvation. Thus, is supposed to leads to works of love/charity with a definition similar to yours and moral absolutism."

            Yes, in the Catholic viewpoint, this *is* supposed to lead to works of love and charity, but by your own admission and through my own observations, it doesn't. That's a pretty big failure of your moral code.

            And honestly, I view the concept of moral absolutism as repugnant. In my opinion, moral absolutism is devoid of love or compassion. It strips humanity of everything that makes it unique and wonderful and worthwhile and reduces our existence to a series of unchanging, capricious rules. It reduces your God to a petty tyrant who not only demands your absolute, unquestioning obedience but also that you love him for his tyranny.

            I say, keep your moral absolutism. It is of no practical value.

          • jakael02

            Okay, well thank you for the conversation.

          • What moral view do you share that you think atheists do not? Or, as Hitchens often posed the question, what moral act can Christians do that atheists cannot?

          • This is why I think atheists are capable of living as though God exists. They can perform all the moral acts theists can (unless you count belief in God itself as a moral act). This, irrespective of whether such a criterion is useful for classifying one's relation to the idea of God.

          • But Paul you are making the assumption that living like god exist means living morally. These are two separate questions.

          • I should have made that more explicit in the article; I make the assumption that the God of the Nicene Creed would want us to live morally, and so living morally would mean living as though God exists, even if all the specifics don't match up. In general, Catholics and atheists I've known live the good life, with only a small handful of moral issues dividing them.

            But maybe you would still disagree. Regardless, atheists are a diverse group, and are capable of any action that a theist is (so long as you don't qualify "belief in God" as an action).

          • Well, if what you are getting at is wondering whether someone acts morally, why not just ask that? I imagine because no one would self identify as not acting morally.

            The set of things that are acting like God exists is much broader, it would include belief in a God for starters, it would include a number of things that are morally neutral from an atheist point of view, such as baptizing children, praying, but morally important to theists.

          • I suspect quite a few non-believers, as well as quite a few believers, act in a way mostly contrary to Catholic morality. Depending on their beliefs and dispositions, I would label them apatheists, misotheists, pessimists and nihilists.

            Most non-believers I know act in a way mostly consistent with Catholic morality. These I would call "atheists" or "agnostics", depending.

            Of course, I wouldn't label anyone anything if they self-identified differently, for whatever reasons. But the above is the system I adopt and would encourage others to adopt, if they think there's more to the issue than belief. Those who think it all comes down to belief should use the agnostic/gnostic theist/atheist method, or your more rarified theist/atheist method.

          • Erick Chastain

            If most non-believers act according to "Catholic morality," why is it that according to the polls by the pew forum most atheists tend to support same-sex marriage and tend to be pro-choice? These are not Catholic positions (as you know).

          • That's a good point, and that's one of several reasons why I have now modified Q3. Now the three questions are:

            1) Do you believe that God exists?
            2) Would you prefer God to exist?
            3) Do you live as though other people are ends unto themselves instead of merely means to an end?

            Q3 still needs some work. If you have any suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Hitchens was right on that point. I think my faith helps me live a more moral life, but it seems like some people don't seem to need anything like that. Jesus seems to have agreed as well. He said he came to heal sinners, and he seems to have felt that morally upright people were doing just fine taking care of themselves.

            Having said that, I would also want to add that I personally don't come at religion as a methodology to lead a more moral life. I come at it wanting to get closer to the deep center of the river of life, and I come at it with a recognition that the river is pulling me that way already. Morality and everything else follows from a more primal orientation to reality.

          • Jim, the more I hear from you the more I think we share a world view but use different labels. (Maybe!)

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I bet you are mostly right. Not to worry though - we can still find plenty of interesting things to disagree about!

          • "Or, as Hitchens often posed the question, what moral act can Christians do that atheists cannot?"

            And despite being shown many times how this is a straw man that few Christian believe (i.e., that atheists are incapable of behaving as morally as Christians), Hitchens never changed his tune.

            What Christians *do* legitimately claim is that atheists have no objective grounding for their moral truths and values. They may *live* moral lives, according to the rubric of Christian morality, but they have no ultimate justification for obeying that (or any) objective moral code.

          • David Nickol

            What Christians *do* legitimately claim is that atheists have no objective grounding for their moral truths and values.

            I don't think such a claim is legitimate. There are atheists who believe moral truths and values are objective. I am no expert here, but a simple Google search ("morality without God" or "secular morality" or "atheism morality") will yield plenty of results.

            I think to argue that there is no such thing as objective morality without God is tantamount to urging atheists to be amoral. It is telling them that if they had true intellectual integrity and consistency, they would do whatever they could get away with and totally disregard all moral strictures.

          • I don't think it is legitimate either. It seems to be a textbook case of wishful thinking. I expect you are aware that "objective" here is being used to mean ultimate perfect and absolute with reference to no standards other than itself. This is a pretty high standard as all scientific findings would not be objective in this sense.

            It is usually presented as an argument for the existence of god, defined as this standard. The argument being that without such an "objective" source, our moral values are subjective, arbitrary, or a matter of opinion. Even if we grant all of this ontologically, and accept that this would lead to "moral relativism", it does not establish that it is the case.

            When pressed for how they know such "objective" moral values exist, we are presented with feelings, intuition and appeals to popularity for certain claims like " torturing babies for fun" is obviously wrong. (which is a bit of a trick as torture means wrongfully hurting someone

          • " I expect you are aware that "objective" here is being used to mean ultimate perfect and absolute with reference to no standards other than itself. This is a pretty high standard as all scientific findings would not be objective in this sense."

            What does science have to do with this?

            "When pressed for how they know such "objective" moral values exist, we are presented with feelings, intuition and appeals to popularity for certain claims like " torturing babies for fun" is obviously wrong. (which is a bit of a trick as torture means wrongfully hurting someone."

            It's clear your confused between moral epistemology (i.e., how we come to know specific moral truths) and moral ontology (i.e., whether objective moral truths exist</em.) The two are independent and distinct. I suggest reading up on the difference. Here's a good primer:

            http://www.reasonablefaith.org/keeping-moral-epistemology-and-moral-ontology-distinct

          • I'm talking about science to show how narrow the use of "objective " you are applying. In science, medicine and law will speak of objective findings, which means accurate and consistent with agree upon axioms or other premises. They do not mean that this is a perfect absolute truth.

            I don't think I am confusin epistemology and ontology. I aware that theist may believe that moral absolutes exist and that this is a separate question from if it is reasonable to accept this. I am criticizing the epistemology.

          • "I don't think such a claim is legitimate. There are atheists who believe moral truths and values are objective."

            That's not what I disputed. I noted that, despite the claims or desires of its adherents, atheism offers no ground for objective morality.

            Just because a group believes their ideals are well-grounded, this doesn't mean they are. Wouldn't you agree?

            (I'm supposing we'd also agree that just because Google search results exist for an idea, that doesn't make the idea true. Right?)

            "I think to argue that there is no such thing as objective morality without God is tantamount to urging atheists to be amoral."

            This is not the case, and it's the same confusion Hitchens displayed throughout his life. Atheists can, to their credit, live moral lives, and engage in objectively moral behavior, but they have no objective ground for doing so.

            "It is telling them that if they had true intellectual integrity and consistency, they would do whatever they could get away with and totally disregard all moral strictures."

            This, again, is untrue, and it's an exaggerated straw man. I didn't advocate or insinuate this. Atheists have plenty of subjective reasons to prefer structure over moral anarchy. And they have good reasons to live by the objective moral code of Christian theists. But so long as they reject God, they eschew any objective ground for preferring one moral code over another.

          • Max Driffill

            That's not what I disputed. I noted that, despite the claims or desires of its adherents, atheism offers no ground for objective morality.

            Neither does Christianity.

          • "Neither does Christianity."

            It does. God, the non-contingent Good.

            I should add that even if you disagree with the above claim, that doesn't mean Christian fails to offer a logical ground for objective morality.

            Therefore, any way you slice it, your assertion ("Neither does Christianity") is incorrect.

          • Brandon,

            The ontological fact is either an absolute and grounding for morality exists. If it does, then it grounds morality for both theists and atheists.

            I say that this is unknown. I'd be very interested in how theists claim to know that such a grounding exists. It's no good simply stating that it is non-contingent, you have to show why it is reasonable to believe it is non-contingent. If you say it is the nature of a non-contingent being you need to prove this being and why perfect morality is its essential nature. It is not reasonable to believe an absolute perfect morality must exist because if not, all morality may be subjective. You have to prove subjective morality is impossible. You cannot just appeal to "obviousness", this is not an argument.

          • "You have to prove subjective morality is impossible. You cannot just appeal to "obviousness", this is not an argument."

            The confusion continues. Whether intentional or not, you continue to misrepresent my views and thus make fruitful dialogue unlikely.

            I never claimed that "subjective morality is impossible." In fact, I think it's obvious that just the opposite is true.. It's possible and prevalent, especially in the West.

            However, I'm equally confident that while most people live subjectively moral lives, upon reflection they recognize the need for objective moral values and duties. For example, most reasonable people believe that torturing children for pleasure is objectively wrong--wrong for all people, in all places, regardless of human opinion.

          • Max Driffill

            Brandon,

            For example, most reasonable people believe that torturing children for pleasure is objectively wrong--wrong for all people, in all places, regardless of human opinion.

            People haven't always believed this. In fact, and often for religious reasons, people used to think that torturing children was actually a wise and prudent thing to do. That is to say, the doctrine of total depravity certainly deprived many a child of a calm upbringing lacking in abuse. A popular way to "encourage" a child to action was to use a goad, on their head or other part of their body. Children used to live much harder and unpleasant lives. I remember the gleam in Sister Annette's eye when should told me she wished she could "still hit you kids with a ruler." The implication was clear, she regretted that she could not whack my knuckles with a ruler. She wasn't joking. Sister Annette did not joke.

            The understanding that children were not nearly as culpable for their actions, and that beating and terrorizing them was cruel has not always been a strongly understood component of human parenting (though hunter/gathers tend to be less prone to all forms of physical punishment toward children). The idea that children have rights, are not the property of their parents, ought not be beaten, burned (a common punishment for unruly kids in Germany for a time) or otherwise terrorized. This set of ideas about respect for the autonomy of children is a product of Enlightenment reason, and owes very little to the rules and concerns of the god Yahweh, who, as you may remember, thought it a reasonable idea to have unruly children stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

            I bring this up, because it illustrates the fact that our moral ideas have changed over time as people were better able to see things more clearly from another's perspective, became better informed, and with a better perspective, and information challenged older, established traditions about the treatment of children.

          • David Nickol

            Just because a group believes their ideals are well-grounded, this doesn't mean they are. Wouldn't you agree?

            Yes, I would agree, and I would include Catholics and all other theists as groups who believe their ideals are well-grounded but could possibly be wrong. It is your belief and the belief of the Catholic Church that what the Magisterium claims to know with certainty is indeed certain, but that doesn't make it certain. The Catholic Church believes that without God, morality is ultimately ungrounded. But there are atheists who believe there is an objective grounding for morality without God. You disagree with them, and they disagree with you, but from my perspective, there is no conclusive evidence or proof that either of you is correct.

            Whether or not there can be objective morality without God is, it seems to me, a philosophical question without a definitive answer, as is the larger question about whether or not there is even a God.

            (I'm supposing we'd also agree that just because Google search results exist for an idea, that doesn't make the idea true. Right?)

            I did not mean people who googled the issue could get hits. I meant if people took the trouble to google the issue, they would find solid philosophical arguments from atheists such as Daniel Dennett and Thomas Nagel that made it clear this was not a settled issue.

            This, again, is untrue, and it's an exaggerated straw man.

            If there were as many straw men on this site as some claim, people with hay fever would have to take antihistamines before coming here.

            But so long as they reject God, they eschew any objective ground for preferring one moral code over another.

            In your opinion. But you saying it is so doesn't make it so. I am not arguing you are wrong. I am saying it seems to me to be an open question in philosophy.

          • And atheists believe that Christians do not have an objective grounding for their moral truths and values. I would say neither perspective can claim to know even if it is possible to have "objective moral values" in the sense understand you to be using the term, which is absolute perfect moral values.

            But this all misses the question which is not whether atheist can act morally or what the source or grounding of morality is, but what is it that distinguishes Christian or other theistic morality from non-theistic morality?

            From your comments, Brandon, I am not sure there is a difference other than this claim of grounding. But I am not sure. Do Catholics believe confession and participating in the sacraments are moral duties? That praising gods name is a moral imperative? That teaching teens not to use condoms or end a dangerous pregnancy, are moral imperatives?

            Or, are these things non moral choices, or unimportant in some way? I would need to know if I am going to characterize myself as living ad if god exists or not.

          • "But this all misses the question which is not whether atheist can act morally or what the source or grounding of morality is, but what is it that distinguishes Christian or other theistic morality from non-theistic morality?"

            I've answered that. Theism offers a logical ground for objective moral values and duties. Atheism cannot.

            "From your comments, Brandon, I am not sure there is a difference other than this claim of grounding."

            This is a huge difference! It matters whether a moral claim is well-grounded or un-grounded, wouldn't you agree?

          • Max Driffill

            Brandon,

            I've answered that. Theism offers a logical ground for objective moral values and duties. Atheism cannot.

            You are actually just asserting this. Christian morality is not morality. Christian morality is simply "Do as the strong man ordains or he will torture you forever." That isn't morality, that is simple obedience.

          • Max, that's a snarky mischaracterization of Christian morality. It violates our Commenting Rules which require you accurately represent positions you disagree with, and not insult them. Consider this a warning.

          • Max Driffill

            I actually wasn't intending any thing snarky at all in my comment. I was trying to point out the problem with what you call morality. It doesn't appear to be morality so much as it appears to be obedience. They are not the same thing.

            Does god choose moral standards because they are good? If so, we don't need the divine imprimatur, we can just skip straight to the moral because they can stand on their own.

            If a thing is gods just choose based on their whims then the standards may just be whimsy. Why does a moral precept need the stamp of a powerful figure?

            There is no logical leap from a god's law and morality. The laws of Yaweh are not necessarily moral ones, and you or anyone else asserting they are, is not the same thing as demonstrating this fact. We have many laws handed down from this god that are manifestly immoral, and not to the good.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Max, I assume you have chosen the moral standards you have decided to live by because you think they are right.

            Haven't there been times when you didn't want to do something you decided was the right thing to do or wanted to do a thing you had decided before would be the wrong thing to do? If in that case you did the right thing, then you were practicing obedience. You were obeying a standard irregardless of how you felt at the moment about that standard (or at least how part of you felt).

            Obedience is the thing that links the moral law with human behavior. Socrates made an error when he thought that if you really understood what was good you would necessarily do it. Part of human fallibility is that we don't necessarily do what we think we should.

            This is why Catholics (at least) both try to obey the moral law just because it is good, and because it is what we think God wants.

          • Max Driffill

            Kevin,
            I think, perhaps I wasn't as clear as I would have liked, and this has produced a small mis-understanding of my position.
            My point was not that obedience to one's moral ideas was a bad thing. My argument was focused on the justification of moral claims.
            God saying it or commanding it, does not mean that the command, or rule is a moral one. Whether the command is moral is a thing we must work out.

            Is the rule a good rule? If it is, then it doesn't need the stamp of a god. It can stand on its own. If it is only moral because a god says it is, then why is it moral? Is it good and just because a god said so? How is that providing sound logical reasoning for a moral rule? It looks no different than mere obedience to a powerful figure if the principle in question cannot be justified on its own merits. Its no good here to say, say we don't know or understand all that god knows or understand so we cannot adjudicate on the morality of a god's rules. God's ways are not our ways, as the old saw goes. If this is the case then you can say nothing useful about the behavior or edicts of the god in question, at all. At which point one is simply hoping that such a god is good.
            Hopefully that makes clearly what I was saying.

          • Susan

            God saying it or commanding it, does not mean that the command, or rule is a moral one

            No. It doesn't. Moral codes have been argued to bits for thousands of years, based on more substantive assertions than unevidenced deities.

            Brandon needs to explain what humans mean when they discuss morality. Pointing to his version of the catholic deity as the only source of morality, without defining morality and connecting the dots between his deity beliefs and any sort of grounding for morality is avoiding the discussion.

            We don't need Yahweh to tell us that torturing children for fun is bad or that rape is bad or that genocide is bad.

            We do need Brandon to explain why contraception is bad or gay marriage is bad as these are moral claims that are made on behalf of Brandon's choice of deity. We also need Brandon to explain why we should take these moral claims seriously without evidence that his Yahweh exists.

            It's fair to say that arguments based on rape, genocide and anything else that most humans agree are terrible things make no statement about the moral position of Brandon's deity. He has simply asserted that without his deity, there is no morality. This is NOT evidence for objective morality, just an appeal to a more broad-sweeping visceral response to morality.

            Care about anything? You have no logical foundation for that without Yahweh.

            Brandon needs to make that connection. He hasn't.

            He hasn't made a case for this, just uttered an assertion.

          • severalspeciesof

            Brandon, I don't think Max's reply was snarky, as Max has now explained. What part, exactly, was snarky? Was there any un-truth to his statement? Since you have deemed it too dangerous to keep up, I'll paraphrase for those who didn't see it: Max was responding to Brandon's assertion that "Theism offers a logical ground for objective moral values and duties. Atheism cannot." and Max's response was 'No, it doesn't. God's threat to eternally punish reduces morality to obedience.' (though I think he said 'strong man' instead of god. Is god strong or not? Isn't that one of its attributes stated over and over again, especially in the Old Testament?)

            Glen

          • David Nickol

            Theism offers a logical ground for objective moral values and duties. Atheism cannot.

            How is this compatible with the rejection of "divine command theory"? I ran across this brief essay by Thomas Nagel, in which he says the following:

            [If] God exists, and forbids what's wrong, that still isn't what makes it wrong. Murder is wrong in itself, and that's why God forbids it (if he does). God couldn't make just any old thing wrong—like putting on your left sock before your right—simply by prohibiting it. If God would punish you for doing that it would be inadvisable to do it, but it wouldn't be wrong. Third, fear of punishment and hope of reward, and even love of God, seem not to be the right motives for morality. If you think it's wrong to kill, cheat, or steal, you should want to avoid doing such things because they are bad things to do to the victims, not just because you fear the consequences for yourself, or because you don't want to offend your Creator.

            I have always been taught that things are not morally wrong because God says so. Rather, God says things are morally wrong because they are morally wrong.

            Catholicism has the concept of intrinsic evil, in which certain things are wrong in an of themselves and may never be done regardless of their consequences, even if those consequences are overwhelmingly positive. I am not quite sure how something (like murder) can be intrinsically wrong for a theist but not an atheist.

          • Well grounded and ungrounded are different from grounded in absolute perfect necessity.

            My morality is grounded in nearly universal desires freedom and human well being, because of this I have a framework to explain WHY torture is wrong. I fully accept that such morality is lost on folks with no empathy or compassion. This is why our society considers such deficits pathological.

            It is also lost on people who murder their daughter for affonts to deities who they are genuinely convinced exist and require this act as consistent with god's perfect moral nature. What would you say to someone about to commit an honour killing?

          • "My morality is grounded in nearly universal desires freedom and human well being, because of this I have a framework to explain WHY torture is wrong."

            But why should we base morality on those universal desires? There are universal desires for greed and lust, too. Should those be considered moral?

          • The desires are not moral values, my morality is grounded in part in observation that human have desires they wish to pursue. The value is to optimize this freedom to pursue personal desires, or to make personal choices, balanced with well being. The value of well being and freedom to pursue desires are axioms upon which my morality is based. I do not have a justification for these other my own knowledge that I want these and my observation that pretty much everyone else wants these. I accept that these are limitations on my moral framework, but, again we find virtually no one who objects to them or thinks they are unreasonable.

            Like torture, the word greed implies a wrong, here wrongful or excessive desire for wealth. A general desire for wealth is not wrong in my view, when it is acted on to the detriment of others, I have a problem with it. I see nothing wrong with lust in general, or acting on lust. Non-consensual sex or touching and so on are wrong because of the consequences to well being of others.

          • Max Driffill

            Brandon,

            But why should we base morality on those universal desires? There are universal desires for greed and lust, too. Should those be considered moral?

            They cannot be considered moral because they cannot be justified to others. While I may experience a desire to take advantage of people for my own gain, or do lustful things (I am not sure lust is a terrible desire so long as honesty rules, and adults are consenting in the case of sexual lust), etc, I don't want people to take advantage of me in the pursuit of their self-interested desires. It would be unreasonable of me to ask others to respect my property, and person, while I went about doing whatever negative things I wanted to exact my own desires at the their expense. If I expect my autonomy to be respected, I must also show the same respect toward others. That seems like a reasonable moral calculus. It does not require divine imprimatur.

            You may say, "but without a god vouching for the principle it will not be respected." Such an objection would fail for at least two reasons. The first of which is that divine commandments are not respected all the time. A god's approval of some moral precept has never been very useful in curtailing the poor actions crime, dishonesty etc. That of course would not demonstrate that a god failed to deliver sound moral precepts. And that brings me to the second point of failure. Simply saying a command was divine, from your god say, would not be the same thing as demonstrating that the commands were moral. There are sound reasons for suspecting that the rules of Yahweh are, by and large, not the most moral rule set ever created.

            Telling us that:

            It [Christianity,]does [provide logical basis for moral action]. God, the non-contingent Good.

            That is pure supposition, and lacks evidence to support it. I understand that it is a point of faith for you, but to ears like mine the notion comes perilously close to being risible.

            I should add that even if you disagree with the above claim, that doesn't mean Christian fails to offer a logical ground for objective morality.

            Again, Christianity does not provide a logical ground for objective morality. Christianity provides a logical ground (if the god of the bible exists) for obeying Yahweh. There is no guarantee that Yahweh's rules are moral.

            One has to demonstrate that the moral rules one's god commands are actually moral. Yahweh saying X is good (through one of his many human interlocutors of course), does not mean that said X is actually good.

            Therefore, any way you slice it, your assertion ("Neither does Christianity") is incorrect.

            It is not incorrect. Christianity may give one a code by which to live, an ethos, but it may not always be moral.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Catholics believe that every person alive today is "broken" but none of us are irredeemably so.

  • Jim (hillclimber)

    Amen to your last paragraph, Paul. Nice job.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    Thanks for this Paul.

    I think a novelist could find in your eight types of people a very useful template for creating characters for a story about faith.

    I think that while most or maybe even all people will fall solidly in one of these eight slots, each of us will have at least overtones of some of the remaining seven. For example, while I would self-identify as a Satisfied Theist because I believe God exists, want him to exist, and live as if he exists, I don't *know* he exists and both fail often to live as if God exists and wish I could do whatever I want when there is a conflict between what I want and what I think God wants.

  • Loreen Lee

    First of all, I welcome your posting, especially such an intriguing article. (Especially because I find a bit of overlap). Will have to think this over, but may I at this moment take the time to thank you for not being 'too hard' on Nietzsche. It is possible that he was 'shattered' at the idea of the death of gGod. Read his Ecce Homo and also remember that he went mad after witnessing a cruel flogging of a horse, at which he is believed to have said (of himself) that he was the crucified. A very complicated personality to say the least. And a visionary/prophet I believe. 1. He was not advising mankind to adopt a Will to Power, I believe, but analyzing a very common 'condition' of mankind. 2. He was not advising that people adopt the stance of nihilism, but believed that this would be the unavoidable direction that history would take, with 'the death of God'. (Something first said by Hegel, I understand).

    This is one of the reasons why I can't yet make a comment on your twelve types. I can't place Nietzsche in any of the categories. !!!!!

    • Loreen Lee

      I guess I would put Nietzsche into the category of being a 'Pessimist'!!.

  • The second question, "Do you want God to exist?" is an interesting and tricky one. I'm adequately convinced that some key parts of what we call morality are objective in important ways, and by the same arguments I am convinced that some of the actions that conservative Christians attribute to their God are objectively immoral. But then some liberal Christians just say God is for whatever is good, and they often entirely disbelieve in hell and Christendom's old prejudices. The former people do a miry mix of great good and great evil in the world; the latter almost uniformly follow moral principles I admire greatly.

    God as described by the former group would be a great curse upon the world, and I am glad it doesn't exist. God as described by the latter group would be a great grace upon the world, and I am sad it doesn't exist. Both groups are Christian. For me, then, "the Christian God as described by the Nicene Creed" isn't specific enough. We have to talk about what what it would do to people.

    • jakael02

      I personally prefer to refer to Christians as either Orthodox, or Unorthodox rather than conservative or liberal. The terms conservative/liberal seems to be the medias classification rather than how theologians would describe it. So classifying Christians in that sense, would tighten up the definition of "the Christian God as described by the Nicene Creed".

      • I'm not going to take sides and declare, from the outside, which of the thousands of groups who believe themselves to have the right understanding of their holy texts are "orthodox". The word just connotes an "Applaud Now" sign held up for a sympathetic audience; it doesn't denote any objective feature agreed upon by different audiences. By contrast, "conservative" and "liberal" express readily identifiable branches of a religion based on how they interact with new ideas.

  • GCBill

    With regards to Question #3: If it's possible from the atheist perspective to live a principled, ethical life without divine justification, then you really shouldn't frame the good life as "living as though God existed" (emphasis mine). The conclusion that goodness depends on God is usually denied by self-identifying "atheists." Your third dimension of belief does more than draw a fuzzy boundary between Catholics and atheists. It actually makes atheism appear parasitic on Catholic assumptions in a way that no reasonable atheist would accept. By applying the Catholic definition of goodness to atheistic worldviews, you unintentionally portray the atheist ethos as one of incoherent reactionaryism. While Catholics might hold this position, it makes no sense to define atheism based on what Catholics think it entails. Otherwise, you might as well just refer to each possible atheistic position as Grave and Irrational Evil #n, where n assumes a unique integer value between 1 and 8 inclusive.

    Now I realize you don't intend to suggest that atheists actually think of the good life in terms of the divine. I suspect you're borrowing the language of theists in order to speak about the possibility of intrinsic value in the cosmos, since secularism doesn't have its own concise word or phrase for such a thing. But I think we really should strive to develop our own way of speaking about these ideas that doesn't depend on pre-existing theistic language. Otherwise, I worry that atheists will struggle to explain the coherence of their position to people who are used to interpreting "live as though God existed" literally.

    • As regards the action "as though X", all I consider is the action. There are likely many theists who in some cases act as though Bentham's utilitarian ethics is the case, even if they don't believe that the ethics is in fact the case. And no parasitic relationship is intended. With that question, I'm looking at actions separated as much as possible from intent. Do you think that the question #3 should be reworded? If so, how would you prefer it to be phrased?

      • Tim Dacey

        Hey Paul,

        It seems you might be endorsing Theological antirealism, which may be a perfectly reasonable position for an atheist. You might find this a good read...

        interestedhttp://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/is-belief-a-jewish-notion/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

        This may be a good response to GCBill who suggests that an atheist who "lives as though God exists" is in some way being disingenuous about their atheism. It seems that for someone like Wettstein (others could include Schleiermacher), religion can have instrumental value-a sort of useful fiction if you will. In fact, for Wettstein the Theological Antirealist can even participate in religious rituals.

        • Thanks for linking that article. It was great!

          I'm not endorsing theological antirealism. The question of God's existence is paramount. My eternal future would be very different if the Christian God exists than if the Christian God does not exist. I do think that belief that God exists is not as important as living as though God exists.

          If Christ is our judge in Heaven, I think he will care less whether we believe that he came back from the dead, and will care more about how we treat other people (Matthew 25:31 and following).

    • Tim Dacey

      GCBill: I have a reply to Paul below and would be interested in your view on the matter

  • I am in the camp of, "it is all about belief." I agree with your definition of "atheist" as lacking a belief in a god. I think this is a useful term to use in having discussions between theists and non-believers on this issue of the existence of gods. I find your refined definition too narrow, and likely to add to confusion to the discussion.

    I don't see much use in using the term agnostic (or particularly gnostic, given that capital G Gnostic means something altogether different.) in this context as these terms are often used quite equivocally. Agnostic is often used for people who are simply lack a belief, you can see Mr Ministry Man in the video below rant about how you are not an atheist unless you have an absolute certainty there is no god: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znZb40_kizI

    (Please see "my" video response as 42Oolon)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkKgbpsKX0c

    I don't think anyone in this commenting community would say that knowledge is required to be a Catholic, rather only belief. I think no one my side would claim someone without knowledge in a god cannot be a Catholic and is categorically on the other side. The thing that matters is belief, the thing that distinguishes the sides in pretty much every discussion on the issue of the existence of a god, is belief. It really is all about belief in this context.

    I will post my problems with your subcategories in another comment.

    • For those in the "belief only" camp, I think that the term "gnostic" and "agnostic" although not necessary are in some cases helpful, because they offer the degree of confidence a person has in their atheism or theism, although maybe you think it is too limited because it is binary. Maybe you want more degrees. In that case, I'd advocate something more complex (and harder to immediately communicate), such as Dawkins's Spectrum of Theistic Probability, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectrum_of_theistic_probability . I would be a "4", with a large standard deviation.

      • For me, in terms of the discussion on the existence of gods, it is binary. Atheists might be interested in discussing among themselves where they are on spectrums of confidence and theists might discuss how strong their faith is etc.

        But overwhelmingly, I seem to see this issue of atheist, agnostic come up exactly like Mr Ministry Man treats it. Atheist = certainty there is no god. Uncertainty or not being convinced is agnosticism, and the implication is that these agnostics kind of believe and should be treated as part of the theist camp.

        We saw it also in the conflation and confusion over terms in the Pew study. All of that muddied the water away from trying to see if there is a correlation between a lack of belief in deities and bible knowledge.

        • I understand that you may not use it, but what do you think about Dawkins's spectrum? Too detailed to be practical? Do you think it has any use?

          EDITED TO ADD: Also, what do you do about someone who thinks that God may or may not exists, and is on the fence, or someone who isn't sure how God should be defined, or someone who doesn't care? Are these all atheists, or all theists, or does it depend?

          • Practical for what?

          • As a way of (self) labelling, in order to better convey someone's degree of belief in God. Some of this comes from Massimo Pigliucci's conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the second conversation about Tyson's refusal to label himself an atheist. Pigliucci pointed out that there seems to be a big difference between someone who doesn't believe that God exists but thinks it's "close to 50% chance", and someone who thinks God's existence is as likely as the existence of unicorns or teapots flying around Jupiter.

          • I am not seeing this as a terribly practical distinction. Where the issue of the confidence in someone's belief comes up, it is easily dealt with by simply stating how confident they are in the belief.

            I listened to the Rationally Speaking podcast and I think Tyson is not comfortable with the label atheist because the prejudicial and controversial nature of the discussion. His distancing himself from the term adds to the confusion. Now people may listen to this and say "see, atheist doesn't just mean a lack of belief in a god, Tyson lacks a belief but he won't use the term even when that definition was put to him, it means you are convinced there is no god, or hate religious people..."

            So I am someone who thinks God is as likely as Russell's Teapot. What I am I to make of Tyson's refusal to be grouped in with me? That he thinks there is something nasty about me? That I will be mean and arrogant in some way BECAUSE of the extent of my lack of belief?

          • So I am someone who thinks God is as likely as Russell's Teapot.

            Massimo argued that this is good reason for you (and those with a similar level of confidence) to label yourself an atheist. He argued that this is why deGrasse Tyson should label himself an atheist as well. From that podcast, Massimo seems to think that "agnostic" may be a fair label for someone who thinks God is as likely as, say, intelligent extraterrestrial life. Not certain. Maybe unlikely. But not exceedingly unlikely.

            I think that deGrasse Tyson rejects the label "atheist" not because he's arrogant, but because he has this visceral reaction to labels. His reaction doesn't seem very rational, but I respect that he can call himself what he likes. He's chosen to call himself Neil.

          • All of these people lack a belief in a god. They are atheists.

  • I think the questions of whether someone wants there be a god, or acts like there is a god, even the Catholic version, is too vague to answer.

    Do I want there to be a Catholic god? I would have to say "no", but this may be misleading. I do not see any reason to want there to be a "ground of all being". Or a trinity, that is also love, that is also interested in my bedroom practices and my innermost thoughts and will literally judge me based on these things. I find the idea of a god that intervenes to cure the radiodermitis in one person in answer of prayer, but lets the child of devout Catholics praying for a cure to leukemia to die at 5 unconscionable. I find the idea of a god that deals with sin through a blood sacrifice in substitutional atonement to be disgusting and immoral.

    Do I want to have life everlasting in eternal bliss, yes. Do I want there to be justice for those who commit crimes against humanity and are unpunished in life, yes. Do I want there to be a perfect objective morality that we can know to guide us in our actions, yes. Do I think any of this is the case, no.

    And I am also probably making all kinds of mistakes about what Catholics believe, not to mention other concepts of gods, Christian or not. I really can't answer this question as an atheist.

    Do I act as if God exists? You seem to mean do I act ethically or morally. But these are not the same question. Does acting as if the Catholic god exist mean acting in the furtherance of human well being and trying to reduce and avoid suffering? If so then I do act that way. Does it mean acting in a way I consider "good", sometimes, when no human will ever know? Yes, I do, (but I can't tell you about it;))

    Or does it mean I baptizing children and attending confession. Does it mean abstaining from per-marital sex? Homosexuality? Contraception? Does it mean protesting abortion clinics. Does it mean voting based solely on a candidate's position on stem cells?

    These questions are relevant pretty much only to Catholics. We would need a whole set of other questions for Mormons, Hindus, Muslims, pantheists and so on.

    Again, I just do not see the point of adding these issues into a debate between atheists and theists.

    • Guest

      Paul, that God exists is not a belief but a conclusion of reason for the one who can follow the proofs. See CCC 36(*). Notice also the Nicene creed does not begin "I believe that God exists". It begins "I believe in God".

      Isn't your definition (Satisfied Theist: This is someone who believes that God exists..) biased towards fideism? Doesn't it just assume God's existence is indemonstrable and so one at best believes it? Fideism contradicts the Catechism.

      Better if the definition just referred to the propositional content: theism is the proposition God exists; atheism is the proposition God does not exist. Fideists then believe God exists. Educated Catholics do not believe it -- they know it as a mathematician knows there is no largest prime number: by reason.

      (*) CCC 36. Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason." Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God's revelation. Man has this capacity because he is created "in the image of God".

      • Was this directed toward me?

        If so, then I think most of the confusion can be handled with a simple clarification. I use the term "belief" as contemporary philososphers tend to use the term. "Believe that X" simply means holding that X is the case. Knowledge can be regarded as justified true belief: true belief with good supporting reasons.

        A mathematician believes that there is no largest prime number, because the mathematician can prove it. Most Catholics I know cannot prove that God exists, but nevertheless have good reasons for thinking that God exists.

        I am about as dubious of your Educated Catholics as I am of gnomes and fairies. In other words, I think it's much more likely God exists than your Educated Catholics.

        • Steve Law

          I take your general point, but that is a bit harsh. You believe there's no such thing as an educated catholic...?

          • There are many educated Catholics, several far more educated than I am. But there aren't Guest's version of educated Catholics. Those are the fairy tale. If one of Guest's educated Catholics existed, all she would have to do is come out into the open, present her mathematical proof of God, and atheism would end.

      • Do you really think people who believe in God but are not absolutely certain should, not be called theists? That the term is best restricted to those who have a mathematical certainty? I honestly think you are being hyperbolic, not even the Pope would claim mathematical certainty that God exists.

        If not please share your Euclidean proof for God!

  • Peter

    "I speculate that the former way of labeling positions on God, based only on belief, seems a very Protestant way of doing things. Protestants traditionally emphasize faith alone above the other cardinal virtues of hope and love. Giving a place for hope and love seems to be a more universal, or Catholic, approach to the question of theism and atheism."

    The greatest difference between the Protestant and Catholic approaches is not hope and love but reason. While the Protestant emphasises faith alone, the Catholic understanding is of a faith underpinned by reason, by the presence of a Creator revealed not only through scripture but also through the study of creation.
    Indeed as Vatican I says:

    "The same Holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason : ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. It was, however, pleasing to his wisdom and goodness to reveal himself and the eternal laws of his will to the human race by another, and that a supernatural, way."

    What is atheism then? Is it a refusal to follow reason? Is it a purposeful burying of one's head in the sand as the evidence mounts that the universe is a cosmic blueprint designed for the creation of life? It is so ironic that atheism appeals to science and reason when facing Protestant fideism, then abandons it and resorts to obstinacy when confronted with Catholic rationalism.

    • If you are correct, then we had best abandon using the terms "theist" and "atheist" altogether, since "atheist" would be nearly synonymous with an insult, and insulting people does not develop the discussion.

      • Peter

        On the contrary, neo-atheism has been a very useful and powerful force in countering the error of fideism which had threatened to envelope Christianity. That cannot be underestimated given the dogged persistence of creationist belief in some parts of the world. St Augustine railed against creationism in his "Literal Meaning of Genesis" 1600 years ago and yet here we are in the 21st century still encountering the claims of creationists and proponents of ID.

        Inasmuch as atheists oppose these powerful fideistic movements with science and reason, they are to be congratulated not demeaned. I am the first to say that. The evidence is growing all the time through scientific discovery that a Creator did not intervene directly within creation to create or to manipulate what was already created.

        However, I feel that atheism oversteps its remit when it dogmatically rejects the consequences of scientific discovery which reveal a universe with a cosmic blueprint, an inbuilt pre-configuration to create life, denoting design and purpose. Even the inception of creation by naturalistic means, as put forward by atheist cosmologists, would have been part of the design.

        • You are in favour of people opposing fideistic movement. Fine. Why call any of them atheists? What use is the label at all, when it is used as an insult?

          • Peter

            The bulk of those who oppose the fideisitic movement call themselves atheists because, by scientifically refuting creationist arguments, they believe they have removed the necessity for God and consequently see no reason for him to exist. However, all they have done is refute the creationist God and yet they act as though they have refuted the God of creation.

  • Geeves

    I very much enjoyed this article. It is a good insight into the myriad degrees of belief and practice. One thing I wanted to highlight though, was that people I have known who self identify as Agnostics have been fairly "gnostic theists" but have issue with "organised religion". ie they believe (often quite confidently) in the existence of God, but reject the human institutions of churches or don't want to believe in a specific god.

    This actually includes some people who self-identify as athiests. I had a house mate many years back who was quite mocking of my Catholic observance and clearly thought I was a bit deluded for my faith, and yet lived as though there was a god (by your definition) and was very into various forms of "new age" spiritualism. She seemed to want there to be A god, just not in the Judeo-Christian idea of God.

    • So I would say this is the kind of confusion we should try and clear up. I think it is useful to have a word for people who have no belief in any deity. This is what I use the term atheist for. It is also how the word is most often used in non-believer communities.

      People who believe a deity exists, but do not subscribe to a particular religion, I think should be called non-religious. Those who oppose religion should use the label anti-religious, whether theist or atheist.

  • Jonathan Brumley

    Hi Paul,

    I liked the article and your categorizations. I think it's very relevant to discussion whether someone "wants" their beliefs to be true.

    However, I take issue with the categorization of atheist as someone who "lives as though God exists". I think I get what you are saying, but it's impossible for an atheist to live as if the Judeo-Christian God exists.

    To live as though the Christian God exists, you would need to above all live the greatest commandment, which is "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength." But an atheist cannot love God, because an atheist does not know God. You can't love someone you don't know.

    Perhaps it would be better to describe your atheist as not "someone who lives as though God exists", but someone who "lives as though love exists", or "lives as though goodness exists", or lives "according to some principles of virtue".

    • Thank you for the kind words, and for the criticism on the last point, "living as though God exists". I have gotten quite a bit of push-back from both atheists and theists on this question, so it probably does need to be rephrased. One way I might say it to a Catholic would be to employ Aquinas's distinction between Happiness and Blessedness. Someone who does not know God by name can still love God by loving his Natural Law (a Law that is, according to the Catholic, written on all our hearts, i.e. Rom. 1:20), but may not be presently united to the body of Christ sacramentally, and so would enjoy true happiness, but not that blessedness that can only be enjoyed on Earth by being wedded to the Creator as a member of His Church. That's the idea that I was trying to get at, using a more religiously neutral language. I hope you can follow some of that, although it is still a bit muddled.

      Thank you for your suggestions about how I can rephrase the question. Although I agree that the third question needs to be restructured, I would like the restructured version to still mention God, because each of the three questions should deal with a person's relationship to God, in terms of their belief, their desires, and their daily life.

      • Jonathan Brumley

        CCC 847 refers to do those who do not know Christ and His Church, but nonetheless "seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience".

        • Exactly. That's the idea behind Q#3.

          • Jonathan Brumley

            I am wondering by Question #3, do you mean to ask:

            a) whether someone has Christian (Catholic?) values
            b) whether someone acts in accordance with their values (i.e. does a person tend to follow his conscience)
            c) whether a person has any values at all

            I thought reading Question #3, you were asking (a), but based on this statement I think you're asking something more like (b) or (c).

          • It's more or less (a). After all, Ayn Rand has values and follows them, but I would qualify her as being closest among philosophers (that I can think of) to living as though God does not exist.

            Maybe a way I can word it, "do you live as though other people are ends unto themselves, instead of as though others are only means to an end?" It doesn't mention God... but it is pretty-much the third question I want to ask.

          • Jonathan Brumley

            Are most atheists also altruists?

            It seems to me that atheist altruists and Christians (who act as altruists) definitely have something in common - desiring the good of people (as an end, not a means). The similarities between and altruist atheist and a Christian would be in the practice of corporal works of mercy - plus the practice of virtues - kindness, patience, humility, temperance, prudence, fortitude, etc.

            However, there are some notable differences. A Christian, out of love for a person, would value and practice the spiritual works of mercy - whereas an atheist would consider these actions useless at best. A Christian would desire above all a person's eternal good, whereas an atheist altruist would necessarily focus on the temporal goods of a person.

            A Christian values above all the love of God - prayer, worship, and encountering God in sacraments, whereas an atheist would consider such actions to be the acts of a delusional mind.

            There is often a big distinction in practice - I can't imagine many atheist altruists acting like St. Hildegard or St. Paul. Such Christians might fall under the category of "apatheist", according to your categories.

          • I agree that there would be important differences between the way atheists and theists would carry out charitable works, because belief informs activity. If you believe that vaccines cause autism in children, then it would be a loving act, a Christian act, to try to convince parents not to vaccinate their children. The important consideration for Q3 is whether the actions of a person, considered in themselves, would be consistent or inconsistent with the maxim, "treating people as ends and not as means to an end."

            Are most atheists also altruists?

            If you use my labels, all atheists act as though others are ends unto themselves and not only means to an end. If that's how you define altruism, all atheists are altruists. Non-altruists who don't believe that God exists would be nihilists or pessimists. Using the "beliefs only" labels, most atheists I personally know act as though other people are ends unto themselves. Some don't.

      • Jim (hillclimber)

        Norman Maclean had a nice way of making a similar point in A River Runs Through It : "You can love completely without complete understanding".

        Theists could use this as a generous, if somewhat condescending, description of the behavior of some atheists. Atheists could likewise use the same quote as a generous, if somewhat condescending, description of the behavior of some theists.

  • Mike

    Excellent outline of the positions, thanks.

    I had no idea atheists came in so many varieties and that some even believe in objective morality and an afterlife.

    • Thank you for this comment. It would have been worth writing the article if only for this.

      • Mike

        Well it took me i swear what seemed like a couple of years to get that out of a particular atheist i engage with; i was stunned that he believed in objective universal timeless morality, not an afterlife but according to his assumptions i pointed out that he couldn't rule it out entirely especially bc he believes that we are nothing but atoms albeit atoms with "emergent" properties like soul possibly and certainly consciousness....anyway i hope you don't mind me saying i think he's trying to "smuggle" in morality but still his position is i think new and unique among traditional atheists like dawkins.

  • Very poignant: "Jesus said that his true disciples would be known by their love. How interesting, how strangely beautiful, that maybe some of Christ’s truest disciples alive today are not convinced that he even existed."

    I really did enjoy the article

    Yes, on a level theism should entail more than just a set of beliefs and one hopefully practices what they preach. However, once you step away from definitions that deal very specifically with beliefs the definitions become very easily manipulated. You have a very positive attitude towards atheism, so you would like atheism to mean "Someone who lives as though God exists, although she doesn’t believe in God and hopes that she’s right." Using this definition, as soon as an individual no longer "lives as though God exists," they would fall out of the atheist category and into a less praiseworthy category. That's kind of like saying, "A Catholic is someone who lives as if God exists, but as soon as they start living as if God doesn't exist, they're no longer Catholic." That definition would clear up some huge historical boo-boos for Roman Catholics, but that's not the way these definitions should work.

    Again, I did enjoy the article, but I'm not really sold on your thoughts on how to define these various belief systems.

    • Thanks for the observations. Interestingly, one of the consequences of my system is that all theists act as though God exists. If they cease to act as though God exists, they become either misotheists or apatheists. Maybe the criticism is that my system is too kind to both atheists and theists, and if so, it is one I would happily embrace.

      The further criticism you make is that my system is too arbitrary and open to manipulation. I agree that this is a serious problem. I think Kevin Aldrich helps solve this problem, to a degree, with his comment when he stated that most people have feet in multiple camps, and sometimes shift from place to place. The lines are not rigid.

      How would you recommend stepping away from just a set of beliefs, while keeping the system from being easily or unintentionally manipulated? I welcome your insights.

      • I favor sticking to strictly beliefs; however, if you wanted something that dealt more with "actions," then consider a very specific action that might distinguish different individuals. For example, Roman Catholics range a spectrum of individuals who are very adherent to the faith and those who really don't care about the faith that much. This Get Religion article talks about different subsets of Roman Catholics in the US such as "Sunday Morning Catholics," "Cultural Catholics" and "Sweat the Details Catholics." Just looking at the very specific action of church attendance, some relatively accurate generalizations could be made. I don't know how you would implement this with the non-religious population, but if you can find a specific action that would help define the non-religious population, that might help you with creating a definition.

        Here is the article:
        http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2012/02/stalking-the-mythical-catholic-vote-yet-again/

  • At the end of the day, I would be a "pessimist" as defined here. But I certainly object to this label as the common use of this term is quite pejorative. This of course depends what you mean by acts as if god exists and wants a god to exist.

    I hope you can understand that I would be rather upset if I were to be labelled as not an atheist but a pessimist. I have a blog in which I identify as an atheist and I am a member of an atheist group.

    If the definitions of the varieties gain traction, I think it would be quite confusing as myself and thousands of others who don't believe in any gods and may believe no gods exist to no longer fit within the definition of atheist.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      If I remember correctly, Brian, you have said that even though you don't think God exists, you wished he did. So, your own position is not just atheist but atheist plus at least one overtone.

    • This is a system recommended primarily for self-labeling. You should of course call yourself what you like, and I respect that enough to call you what you want to be called.

      But I ask you to consider now my modified way to ask Q3, that of treating people mostly as ends instead of merely as means to an end. Do you generally consider people as ends unto themselves and not merely as means unto an end?

      If so, by this system, I think you would not believe that God exists, hope that God exists, and live as though people are ends unto themselves. You would be an agnostic.

      I also take your point about avoiding use of pejoratives. I used the term because it seemed to fit best the idea of philosophical pessimism, as described by Schopenhauer. I didn't intend it to be a pejorative, but maybe I should use a different term. Would you have one to suggest to me?

      • I don't need labels for myself, I use labels as a shorthand so I don't have to provide long explanations to people when they ask questions like "what religion are you?"

        I think people should be treated as ends in themselves, not solely as means to an ends.

        I am still not comfortable with the statement that I want God to exist. I want some aspects of what Catholics believe to be true and find others immoral and dangerous.

  • Richard Dawkins doesn't live as though God exists. Neither do most atheists I know.

    An atheist who lived as if God existed, would have to have a severe case of scrupulosity, and I don't see that in very many atheists, if any. Richard Dawkins for one, has repeatedly supported sexual morals inconsistent with believing that God exists.

    • David Nickol

      Richard Dawkins for one, has repeatedly supported sexual morals inconsistent with believing that God exists.

      Perhaps it would be more accurate to say Richard Dawkins has supported sexual morals inconsistent with believing in God as the Catholic Church understands God. It is possible that God exists but that the Catholic Church has incorrectly concluded what God's will is regarding sexual morality.

      And of course we know the majority of Catholics (or at least the majority of married Catholics, who practice contraception) don't live according to what the Catholic Church teaches about sexual morality.

      • "For the purposes of this article, there will be only one deity to consider: The Christian God as described by the Nicene Creed."

        Was the paradigm I was answering under. That paradigm, if taken to its logical conclusions, insists on a heteronormative, monogamous family structure. Otherwise, there'd be no need for Mary to be mentioned in the creed; no need for a virgin birth.

        A large percentage of American Catholics under the system described in the article are apatheists- Pope Francis said nearly that just last week:
        http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kathyschiffer/2014/06/pope-francis-rigid-traditionalists-and-cafeteria-catholics-arent-really-catholics/

        • David Nickol

          Was the paradigm I was answering under. That paradigm, if taken to its logical conclusions, insists on a heteronormative, monogamous family structure. Otherwise, there'd be no need for Mary to be mentioned in the creed; no need for a virgin birth.

          I'll just note my disagreement briefly, since to get into a discussion of sexual morality would be off topic.

          On monogamy, I don't think we consider that Abraham or even David were doing something intrinsically wrong in not being monogamous.

          I think there is a great deal left to be determined regarding sex and gender, and I do not think the position of the Catholic Church results by logical and inevitable conclusions from the acceptance of "the Christian God as described in the Nicene Creed."

          I think Pope Benedict XVI (writing before he was pope) said there was no "need" for the virgin birth (or, more accurately, a virginal conception) for Jesus to be God Incarnate, although he was making a complex point which I do not fully understand.

  • Elson

    Hmmmm....could Paul actually be.... despite any protestations on his
    part, a closet wannabe theist if not actually a wannabe Christian of
    some type, if not in the institutional sense, but perhaps he has become
    enamoured of the person of Jesus....and his values as presented by the
    RCC....God knows he would not be the first atheist/agnostic to go down
    that path, Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I grow weary
    sometimes of people that beat around the bush and do not speak clearly but express themselves in convolutions
    as to what their actual position is on metaphysical, and moral...
    matters especially regards Christianity. If you are reading this stuff
    Paul, no insult intended. Just thinking out loud is all. Perhaps to be
    fair, I had better read this, what I consider to be a convoluted article,
    a third time. Peace bro Paul. This is something that I posted on OutShinethe sun, so since the article to which I referenced, came from here....I thought that I should also post my comment here...as well.

    http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.ca/2014/06/estranged-notions-varieties-of-nonbelief.html#disqus_thread

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Elson, that is one of the most convoluted comments I have read on SN. What is more, it accuses Paul of being convoluted!

      • Elson

        I did not accuse Paul of being convoluted.....in fact I said that no insult was intended toward Paul....just that I found the article to be sort of convoluted. I don't think that Paul's skin is quite so thin as you seem to think it is.

    • No, I think you make a very good point. This is one of the reasons I would call myself an agnostic, just an agnostic, even in the beliefs-only system. That's because some days I think it more likely than not that God exists, and some days I think it less likely. I certainly want God to exist, and understand that my desire for God's existence biases my rational judgement. When you want something to be the case, it is easy to look for supporting evidence, and ignore conflicting evidence.

      My style of writing may appear conflicted and unclear, only in the ways in which my own understanding is conflicted and unclear. I'm hard to understand because I don't understand it myself. But I'm working on it.

  • Thanks for all those who commented. Rest assured, I will keep my promise, and read all the comments in this thread, and respond where appropriate. I am grateful for all the feedback and careful consideration.

  • Erick Chastain

    Hi Paul, I actually like the classification. I thought you might find it interesting that most of the mystical saints in the church actually fit under your "reluctant theist" category. I don't like the label "reluctant" but anyhow, St. Teresa of Avila has a quote in which she says "if this is the way you treat your friends, it's no wonder you have so few." Also Pope Francis recently talked about bargaining with God, and Moses and Abraham chastised God. I myself wish that I could have my old atheist lifestyle back, as it was much easier and more comforting! So I and these saints don't wish that God didn't exist strongly, but view a world with God as harder to live in than one without him (assuming the second is even possible).