Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Atheism Defined

This is being cross-posted from my OkCupid journal as an explanation regarding my "religious" persuasion as listed on my profile for that site, but this blog entry should stand pretty well on its own for non-cupid users.

I was recently editing my profile, trying to clarify what it means when I declare myself an "atheist (and very serious about it)" where OkCupid solicits our religious belief. I realized that this clarification was getting to be rather lengthy. My profile is already rather long, so I figured it would make more sense to give a brief clarification in my profile and link to a more lengthy journal entry (the one you're reading now) for those interested.

The first thing I want to explain about atheism is that it is not a religion. As I recently heard someone put it; "Atheism is a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby." I can excuse OkCupid for listing atheism and agnosticism under the "religions" details category because there is really no other category that is appropriate, unless they were to perhaps rename it "Religion/Philosophy/Personal World View" or something similarly unwieldy, or give atheism and agnosticism their own categories. I could select "N/A" as my religion, as that would be most appropriate, but it doesn't convey as much information to the casual profile browser. I'll come back to why I describe myself as "very serious about it [atheism]" later.

So then, to get down to it, what is atheism? As I just suggested, it's a world view.. To find out what atheism actually means, indulge me as I break the word down into its constituent components. Here is the word: atheism. The a part is means without. So atheism means "without theism." Theism (from theos) means "a belief in God or gods." Thus, to be atheist is to be "without belief in God or gods."

Note that being without belief in something is different from not believing that thing is possible. I do not believe that space aliens have visited Earth in the past. I do believe it is possible that they have done so. By default, we all tend to "not believe" anything unless we are convinced otherwise (we are presented with compelling evidence or arguments), or unless it seems probable/intuitively true. Atheists believe there is no compelling evidence for God and do not think his existence is probable. Atheists can, however, believe that it is possible that God exists.

Atheists are more or less divided up into two camps. There are what some people call agnostic atheists or weak atheists, who do not believe that God (or gods) exist -- but think it is possible that they do exist, and do not claim absolute knowledge that they do not exist. Then there are what some call gnostic atheists, or strong atheists who do not believe that God exists and, moreover, believe they know that God doesn't exist, or that his existence is not improbable, but impossible. Most atheists (including myself) fall into the former camp, agnostic/weak atheism.

Some might ask, "Isn't weak atheism the same as agnosticism?" Not quite. Atheism and agnosticism are actually the answers (or approaches) to two subtly different questions. Atheism or theism concerns the question of belief in God. Agnosticism or gnosticism address the question of whether or not God is known or knowable.

If someone were to ask me the question, "Do you believe God exists?" I would say, "No, I am atheist."

If someone were to ask me the question, "Can we know that God exists?" I would say, "No, I am agnostic."

Now, why is this debate on semantics and philosophic particulars important? There is a common misunderstanding of what it means to be atheist that leads believers and even non-believers (who usually call themselves "agnostics") that atheists hold a position that is fundamentally untenable or hypocritical. What these critics say is, "Atheists claim theists are irrational for believing in something without proof, but atheists claim to know that God doesn't exist -- also without proof!" This might make an excellent argument against atheism, except as I've described above, it intreprets the meaning of the word atheism incorrectly.

Most of the people who label themselves "agnostics," are in fact, atheists as well. Agnosticism is a common attribute of atheists, just as gnosticism is a common attribute of theists. There are some who cross the two philosophic outlooks/beliefs and are "gnostic atheists" or "agnostic theists," but they are both pretty uncommon.

Unfortunately, because of what I've just described, it means that atheists who honestly and accurately identify themselves as such sometimes suffer a certain stigma from others' lack of understanding -- a lack of understanding often perpetuated even by fellow atheists! Atheists (and the atheist community, such as it exists) tries to deal with this in various ways.

Sometimes we just call ourselves "agnostics" (even if we have to use it in a context where it is a less precise and relevant term) to save ourselves the hassle of explaining it all, particularly in situations where we wish to avoid the unfair judgment that may go along with identifying oneself as an atheist. The word agnostic is perceived in a softer, more forgiving light, so some atheists use it out of conciliation. Personally, I am uncompromising in my belief that my atheism is nothing to be ashamed of, so I tend to self-identify most often as an atheist. Another accurate and somewhat less contraversial term than atheist that sees some use is "non-theist."

Some atheists have taken to calling themselves something altogether different: brights. The word bright is one that some atheists are attempting to commandeer in the same way the homosexual community has appropriated the word gay to refer to themselves. All atheists are brights (according to those who have coined the term) just as all homosexuals are gay. Some atheists don't like the term (just as some homosexuals don't like the word gay) and feel that this approach to atheist advocacy is misguided. To an extent this may be true (as I indicated earlier, I prefer to just call myself an atheist), but I will happily and readily identify myself as a bright and also as a Bright (note the capital "b") -- someone who has joined the Brights "Internet constituency" to encourage free thought and acceptance/promotion of a naturalistic world view ... and since I'm so busy applying labels to myself right now, I am also a secular humanist.

Why does my profile indicate I am "very serious" about atheism? I think that all religion is irrational. Religions, at least theistic ones, are based on faith*, which is belief without evidence. Religion often tends to be actively hostile towards logic, rationality and science -- this is because logic, rationality and science have a tendency to erode faith, particularly when applied directly to religious claims.

Religion cannot credibly promise solutions to the problems humanity faces, and is likely to face going into the future. Reason and science just might. The world must suffer the ignorance of its influential elite and its masses. An educated populace is our best hope for the future. You can't have that in a world where reason and critical thought are held in contempt by prevailing religious ideologies.

Because I think religion is unnecessary and sometimes hostile to progress that could be made in the humanitarian endeavor, I suppose you can say I am an evangelical atheist. I've never met an evangelical person who isn't serious about their belief, so that's why my profile says I'm very serious about my atheism.

* A word on faith. Some people might tell me that I have faith in science, or faith in my family, which is no different from having faith in God. This is an example of equivocation. It is a logical fallacy. Faith, when used in the context of religious belief means "belief in absence of evidence" -- this I will maintain until someone provides me with direct proof that their religion represents some objective truth. If I were to speak of my faith in science, or faith in my family, it would mean something very different and might instead be characterized as trust, or even better, confidence. I have confidence in science and my family based on good reasons, strong evidence and past experience. This definition does not and can not apply to a person's belief in religious theism.


Anonymous said...

What if someone could show you evidence of design in the Bible that could not come from man? I think that I could provide insight from work that others have done and provide enough "objective truth"

Have you ever read or heard anything from Chuck Missler?


Meanings Of The Names In Genesis 5
by Chuck Missler

Q & A: Where did you find the meanings of the names in Genesis 5?

The background behind the genealogy in Genesis 5 is one of our most frequently asked questions.

Since the ten Hebrew names are proper names, they are not translated but only transliterated to approximate the way they were pronounced. The meaning of proper names can be a difficult pursuit since direct translations are not readily available. Many study aids, such as conventional lexicons, can prove superficial when dealing with proper names. Even a conventional Hebrew lexicon can prove disappointing. A study of the original roots, however, can yield some fascinating insights. (It should be recognized, however, that the views concerning the meaning and significance of the original roots are not free of controversy and are subject to variant readings. This is why we receive so many questions or comments on variations.)


The first name, Adam, comes from adomah, and means "man." As the first man, that seems straightforward enough.


Adam's son was named Seth, which means "appointed." When he was born Eve said, "For God hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew."


Seth's son was called Enosh, which means "mortal," "frail," or "miserable." It is from the root anash: to be incurable; used of a wound, grief, woe, sickness, or wickedness. (It was in the days of Enosh that men began to defile the name of the Living God.1 )


Enosh's son was named Kenan, from which can mean "sorrow," dirge," or "elegy." (The precise denotation is somewhat elusive; some study aids unfortunately presume an Aramaic root synonymous with "Cainan.") Balaam, looking down from the heights of Moab, employed a pun upon the name of the Kenites when he prophesied their destruction.2


Kenan's son was Mahalalel, from mahalal, which means "blessed" or "praise"; and El, the name for God. Thus, Mahalalel means "the Blessed God." Often Hebrew names included El, the name of God, as Dani-el, "God is my Judge," Nathani-el, "Gift of God," etc.


Mahalalel's son was named Jared, from the verb yaradh, meaning "shall come down." Some authorities suggest that this might have been an allusion to the "Sons of God" who "came down" to corrupt the daughters of men, resulting in the Nephilim ("Fallen Ones") of Genesis 6.3


Jared's son was named Enoch, which means "teaching," or "commencement." He was the first of four generations of preachers. In fact, the earliest recorded prophecy was by Enoch, which amazingly enough deals with the Second Coming of Christ.4


The Flood of Noah did not come as a surprise. It had been preached on for four generations. But something strange happened when Enoch was 65, from which time "he walked with God." Enoch was given a prophecy that as long as his son was alive, the judgment of the flood would be withheld; but as soon as he died, the flood would be sent forth.

Enoch named his son to reflect this prophecy. The name Methuselah comes from two roots: muth, a root that means "death"5 ; and from shalach, which means "to bring," or "to send forth." Thus, the name Methuselah signifies, "his death shall bring."6

And, indeed, in the year that Methuselah died, the flood came. Methuselah was 187 when he had Lamech, and lived 782 years more. Lamech had Noah when he was 182.7 The Flood came in Noah's 600th year.8 187 + 182 + 600 = 969, Methuselah's age when he died.9

It is interesting that Methuselah's life was, in effect, a symbol of God's mercy in forestalling the coming judgment of the flood. It is therefore fitting that his lifetime is the oldest in the Bible, symbolizing the extreme extensiveness of God's mercy.


Methuselah's son was named Lamech, a root still evident today in our own English word, "lament" or "lamentation." Lamech suggests "despairing." (This name is also linked to the Lamech in Cain's line who inadvertently killed his son Tubal-Cain in a hunting incident. 10 )


Lamech, of course, is the father of Noah, which is derived from nacham , "to bring relief" or "comfort," as Lamech himself explains. 11

The Composite List

Now let's put it all together:



Adam - Man
Seth - Appointed
Enosh - Mortal
Kenan - Sorrow
Mahalalel - The Blessed God
Jared - Shall come down

Enoch - Teaching
Methuselah - His death shall bring
Lamech - The despairing
Noah - Rest, or comfort

Here is a summary of God's plan of redemption, hidden here within a genealogy in Genesis! You will never convince me that a group of Jewish rabbis deliberately "contrived" to hide the "Christian Gospel" right here in a genealogy within their venerated Torah!

Evidences of Design

The implications of this discovery are far more deeply significant than may be evident at first glance. It demonstrates that in the earliest chapters of the Book of Genesis, God had already laid out His plan of redemption for the predicament of mankind. It is the beginning of a love story, ultimately written in blood on a wooden cross which was erected in Judea almost 2,000 years ago.

This is also one of many evidences that the Bible is an integrated message system, the product of supernatural engineering. This punctures the presumptions of many who view the Bible as a record of an evolving cultural tradition, noble though it may be. It claims to be authored by the One who alone knows the end from the beginning,12 despite the fact that it is composed of 66 separate books, penned by some 40 authors, spanning several thousand years.13

* * *


Missler Chuck, Cosmic Codes: Hidden Messages from the Edge of Eternity, Koinonia House, 1999.
Jones, Alfred, Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI, 1990.
Kaplan, Rabbi Aryeh, The Living Torah, Maznaim Publishing Corporation, Jerusalem, 1981.
Pink, Arthur W., Gleanings in Genesis, Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, IL, 1922.
Rosenbaum, M., and Silbermann, A., Pentateuch with Onkelos's Translation (into Aramaic) and Rashi's Commentary, Silbermann Family Publishers, Jerusalem, 1973.
Stedman, Ray C., The Beginnings, Word Books, Waco, TX, 1978.

Anonymous said...

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Cheers, Catch You Later