Category: Talking with believers

There seems to be a neverending confusion and conflation of the terms “atheist” and “agnostic”. In this post, I hope to clear up the difference between the two.

From my experience, the two most frequent and important points to address in this matter are:

1) The false claim that, by definition, atheism is the positive assertion that no godds exist; and

2) The profession by many who, according to the precise meanings of the two words, are in fact both atheists and agnostics, that they are agnostics, but not atheists.

Before addressing what’s problematic about these two points, let’s examine the etymology of the words “atheist” and “agnostic” in order to more clearly undeerstand their definitions.

Both words begin with the prefix “a-“. The definition found (as all subsequent definitions are) in wordinfo:

a-, an-
(Greek: prefix; no, absence of, without, lack of, not)

Just as in the words “apolitical” or “areligious”, which respectively mean “not political” and “lacking religion”, this suffix simply means “to lack”. A-theism, then, is a lack of theism, and a-gnosticism a lack of gnosticism:

gno-, gnos-, gnoto-, -gnostic, -gnosia, -gnomic, -gnomonic, -gnomical, -gnomy, -gnosia, -gnostic, -gnosis +
(Greek: know, learn, discern)

theo-, the-, -theism, -theist, -theistic
(Greek: God, god, deity, divine)

As in the words “diagnose” (literally, to know thoroughly) and ignorance (literally the opposite of knowing or not knowing), the root “-gnostic” pertains to knowledge.

The root “-theist”, on the other hand, pertains to belief in one God, or gods. Just as polytheism is the belief in multiple gods, and pantheism is the belief that (roughly speaking) everything is god, atheism is a lack of any belief in any gods.

The fundamental distinction to make here is the difference between belief and knowledge. It is entirely possible to have one without the other. Many people, for example, believe in ghosts although they do not claim to have any knowledge – whether by personal experience or external evidence – of the veracity of their existence.

So, when it comes to atheism and agnosticism, these are not different positions on the same linear spectrum. They are answers to two entirely different questions.

In the case of theism or atheism, the question is, “Do you believe that one or more gods exist?” If your answer is anything less than an affirmative “Yes”, then you are an atheist. You lack theistic belief.

And in the case of gnosticism (in the simple sense of peertaining to knowledge) or agnosticism as applied to deities, the question is, “Do you claim to have knowledge of the existence (or nonexistence) of one or more gods?” And if you cannot answer “Yes” to this question, then you are an agnostic.

All four combinations of atheist/theist and agnostic/gnostic are therefore possible. It’s likely that most theists are gnostic theists, who not only believe in God, but also would claim to have knowledge of that God. There are, however, also agnostic theists, who maintain a belief in the existence of God without claiming to have any direct or indirect knowledge upon which to base that belief.

Likewise, the majority of atheists are most likely also agnostic; while remaining unconvinced that any gods exist, they do not go so far as to say they are absolutely certain than none do, or at least could exist (I would include myself in this category). Some atheists do take that extra step beyond lacking belief, however, and make the positive claim of knowledge that no gods exist.

And with that, being that it’s about 2:30 a.m., I’ve just got to cut this off short and hit the sack. I will follow this post up, hopefully this weekend, with a further explanation of why I find the two points at the top of this post problematic.

[Note: This post, specifically the cat analogy, borrows heavily from ideas I first heard expressed on the highly recommended Atheist Experience TV show. I suggest you ucheck them out, and I thank them for presenting the argument.]


“Why should I believe you?”

My wife and I don’t have kids, but if we ever do, that will definitely be a question they’ll be raised learning to ask.

From Power Balance bracelets (astonishingly still being sold on the internet) to miracle diets, from reiki to homeopathy, from chupacabras to sinister reptilians, from phony 2011 apocalyptic prophesies to phony 2012 apocalyptic prophesies, the informational landscape in which we live is riddled with falsehoods, and heavily populated by hucksters and charlatans who would have us believe the stories they’re peddling in order to further their own agendas – usually to our detriment – that a skeptical approach is merited.

Skepticism is important for many reasons. One of the most important is that we prevent ourselves from baselessly believing untrue things, especially in cases where accepting false or unsupported beliefs may bring undue harm or ill consequences upon ourselves. But even in cases where believing things for no good reason may not seem to invite any immediate or apparent harm – say, for example, accepting that there is a loving god which created this universe and all living things in it – the same degree of skepticism should be applied. We act, after all, based upon our beliefs. And the further our beliefs become detached from foundations in reality, the more difficult it will become for us to make decisions which are beneficial in the real world.

But not all claims are equal.

Consider two assertions I might make to you:

1) I tell you my bicycle is parked outside.

2) I tell you my Lamborghini is parked outside.

Unless you happen to believe for some reason that I’m ridiculously wealthy (if only it were true) you almost certainly won’t believe my second assertion. You will, however, believe the first easily enough, and rightfully so. The vast majority of people can (and many do) buy bicycles, meaning that the likelihood of my owning one is fairly high, and further that the unlikelihood of me lying about owning one (when it’s nothing special) is even higher. Why in the world would anyone lie about owning a bike?

These thresholds of believability are something we all are familiar with and experience in our daily lives, especially in the internet age when viral rumors run rampant and the pace of creating false stories and claims exceeds the pace of debunking those falsehoods by what seems to be an ever-increasing margin. We have all kinds of expressions, usually involving odor (“that story doesn’t pass the smell test”) that display in our vernacular language our keen awareness of the many varying levels of plausibility when it comes to the stories people tell us.

Yet, when it comes to religious assertions, hands off! Thou shalt not disrespect the claims of another, so long as they qualify them with words such as “sacred”, “spiritual”, “holy”, “religious”, “god”, or any number of phrases which serve as dogmatic antibodies to critical scrutiny. How often we all have heard it asserted that questioning another’s religious assertions is “disrespectful” or “inappropriate”.

But to those believers who would seek to assert their religious claims under the protection of such well-established social mores, it’s important that you understand that skeptics and atheists have no sacred cows. No claims are exempt from inquiry and investigation.

So when you assert, “God exists”, you may find it offensive when atheists and skeptics ask you, rhetorically, “Do you believe in bigfoot?” “Do you believe in leprechauns?” “Do you believe in alien abductions?” To many of you this may feel like a deliberately disrespectful affront to the sanctity of your religion. But it’s important that you understand this is not hyperbole or exaggeration on the part of the questioner. Skeptics do not recognize the sanctity of any claims which have not been shown to be built upon a reasonable and demonstrable foundation of evidence.

And please, if you will, consider how your claims sound to us.

Your claim is one of the existence of God. Let’s consider an analogy based on the existence of a pet. And return to the concept of varying thresholds of believability.

Like the bicycle example above, if I assert to you that “I have a pet cat”, you are more than likely to believe me. Having a cat is so commonplace, and nothing special. Why would I lie about that? And let’s say additionally that I’m your co-worker of several years, so that you feel you know me fairly well and have little reason to doubt or distrust me. Then you’ll be even more inclined to believe that a cat truly is living in my home.

So one Saturday evening I have a party and you have your first opportunity to visit my place – very much looking forward to meeting the cat I always talk so much about. But upon arriving and walking around a bit, you begin to notice first that there isn’t a cat wandering around, and then – as you move from room to room – that there isn’t a litter box in the bathroom, and there aren’t food and water dishes in the kitchen. There are no scratches on the sofa, and no signs of any cat toys, cat nip, or any cat-related anything to be found.

Your doubt builds, and appropriately so. My simple assertion (“I have a cat”) has become less believable as your scrutiny of my claim has raised your suspicions. After a while you just have to ask me: “So, where is this cat of yours?” But I just smile and say she’s not around right now. Time passes, still no cat, you raise the stakes: “So I’m sorry, but it kind of seems like you don’t really have a cat here…” But now I just laugh. “Oh, of course I have a cat, it’s just away from the home right now, and it won’t be back until after the party…”

At a certain point, when none of the evidence you should expect to have seen if I truly owned a cat has been anywhere in sight – especially the cat itself – you will find yourself in a position in which, even if you trust me and don’t believe I’m a liar, you really are left with no other choice but believing I don’t really have a cat. My once simple “cat” assertion has now moved closer to “Lamborghini” territory. Until, at least, I can show you some verifiable evidence that I actually do have a cat.

Or in other words, absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

And in this story, the only claim I’m making is that I have a pet cat.

So how do you think it sounds to people who don’t already subscribe to your God-concept when you claim that God not only exists, but has extraordinary powers and does things which go against everything we know of how the natural world works?

Is it really so unreasonable for us to ask you to show us the litter box? To show us the food and water dishes or the scratches on the sofa? And above all, to show us the damn cat?

I hope you understand this: Atheists don’t choose not to believe in gods. We can’t believe in gods. There simply is no reason to believe the entirely unconvincing claims that any gods exist when nobody on the planet can demonstrate a single shred of evidence that those claims are true. Under such conditions, “choosing” to believe in God is akin to “choosing” to believe we can fly by flapping our arms. It flies in the face of everything we know as evident reality.

I can’t do it. Nor would I ever want to, without good reason.


I came to know who Tracie Harris is by watching her frequent appearances as one of the co-hosts on the excellent Austin-based TV show The Atheist Experience, and more recently listening to her on the also great Godless Bitches podcast.

Just now I stumbled across the comic strip above, which I immediately wanted to re-post here. Wanting to properly credit it, I tracked it back to its source, and it was really cool to discover Tracie is the author, and that there is a whole collection of her work at the Atheist Community of Austin site. If you liked this one, go check out the rest of her stuff!

One common fallacious apologist argument is the appeal to authority. In this fallacy, one brings up experts in particular fields or people of otherwise high repute, pointing to them and saying in essence, “Well they say this is true and they know more than us, so it must be true!”

One of the most common apologist uses of the appeal to authority is to point to scientists who believe in God. Sometimes, as with Isaac Newton, they are correct about a scientist’s beliefs, although this doesn’t remedy the fallacy. (Newton believed in all kinds of crazy crap, and what, in the first place, qualifies a scientist – or anyone for that matter – as an “expert” on whether gods exist?). Unfortunately, however, the deliberately dishonest misrepresentation of clearly atheist/agnostic scientists as believers happens all too often, as apologists engage in out-of-context quote mining to distort the original words for their own agenda, Albert Einstein being victim number one.

In his story reblogged above, Jerry Coyne breaks down a recent Huffington Post slideshow which features some classis examples of such quote mining.

Why Evolution Is True

The HuffPo Science section can’t seem to keep its mitts off religion. Why on earth do they keep dragging God into that section?

The latest theistic incursion is a “slide show” called “Science and religion quotes: what the world’s greatest scientists say about God.”  There are 21 quotes, each accompanied by a photo of the scientist, and, to be fair, there’s a mixture of atheist and pro-religion statements.  A few of them, however, seem unfair to me, since the scientists at issue were clearly atheistic or agnostic in other, unquoted statements.

Carl Sagan:

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual…The notion…

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In this short but excellent video, youtuber DarkMatter2525 highlights the absurdity of the “if God revealed himself to us it would violate our free will” claim.


As a parting post before I break for vacation, I thought I’d post this video.

As much as I respect Hitchens, Dawkins, and the rest of the more famous intellectuals in the atheist visibility movement, I’d have to say that my favorite counter-apologist is probably Matt Dillahunty. Being well versed in the Bible, and having previously aspired to become a preacher, he just has a way of engaging theists on their own terms.

My greatest hope in writing this blog is not to “convert” anybody to atheism, but only to encourage anybody and everybody (theists and atheists alike) to apply skepticism and critical thinking to their own beliefs.

This is the best short, real time example I know of what that actually looks like, and it is Dillahunty at his finest:

“So maybe I should just trust myself not even listen to the Bible.”

Yes, Mark, that’s exactly what you should do. Or, at the very least, if you listen to the Bible first, examine the claims and laws written therein with a critical, skeptical eye, and accept them not on faith, but only if they withstand the scrutiny of empirical evidence and a secular morality.

Man, I miss Zappa. Love him or hate him, few have brought the brutal – and necessary – honesty as forthright as he used to.

This story from the Mid Ohio Atheists (via Ophelia Benson, via Greta Christina) is the latest in the ongoing saga of American billboard companies (in this case the Lind Media Company – you can e-mail the Vice President here) impeding free expression by censoring atheist and secular messages:

We spent several weeks exchanging emails, planning locations, and reviewing the graphics for the Billboards.  In late October everything was ready to go.  They had the final Graphic, had done the mock ups and we had approved them.  Everything seemed to be going off with out a hitch and I was extremely pleased with the company.

Fast forward to today, November 22nd 2011.   This morning I recieved an email from the Vice President of LIND advising me of [their refusal to honor the agreement]. […]

I got a little sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  See I’ve always been an out spoken Atheist, as long as I’ve been an Atheist.  I’m use to people wanting to talk, argue, or save my soul, but I had yet to ever feel the sting of discrimination.  I swallowed the lump in my throat and sent an email back to the Maura S Siegenthaler asking her why they choose to wait till just before the Holiday when we had months of contact with their company and they had our graphics for weeks. I then attempted to call her but was told she was unavailable.  The following reply reinforced my initial gut feeling, it really was because we are Atheists spreading an Atheist message.

Please read the full post for more details. After you do, you may want to consider contacting the company to let them know how you feel about this. That’s what I just did.

Below is the text of the e-mail I just sent to Vice President of Lind Media Maura Siegenthaler ( in support of the Mid Ohio Atheists. I urge you to write to her as well, and you are welcome to copy my message, change it, or add to what I wrote as you like. More contact info for the company can be found at the bottom of the Mid Ohio Atheists post.

Dear Maura Siegenthaler

I’m writing to urge you and the Lind Media Company to reconsider your last minute refusal to honor your agreement with the Mid Ohio Atheists to put up two of their billboards. As you apparently do not hesitate to put up pro-religion billboards, the only plausible explanations for your action are either fear of backlash from a largely religious community and/or plain and simple bigotry against the non religious.

I hope, at least, it’s only the former.

While as a private business you are certainly within your rights to choose your content, and while you may not agree with non believers, refusing to put up a simple message by a group with a point of view, which harms noone and is a simple exercise in free expression as it pertains to religion, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, is extremely disappointing, disgraceful, and goes directly against the grain of the principles and rights the United States is founded upon.

I do hope you’ll reconsider.

I’ve just created a new Facebook page for The Atheist Den. You can find it (and even like it) here:

I still won’t be very active here (or there) until after I take my Japanese exam in early December. But for now I’m trying to get the infrastructure in place to a) reach a wider readership and b) have more arenas available for various modes of communication.

This blog is the space that will allow me to go in depth on an array of topics with more time for careful consideration and research. I’ll always welcome and appreciate your comments here, but I have no illusions about this turning into its own “community”. Realistically, unless something happened and my blog totally blew up, most of the communication with readers here will probably consist of individual two-way exchanges. And while I’ll be grateful and excited for the opportunity to have those conversations, some more multi-dimensional communication is in order as well.

And along those lines, twitter is basically the exact opposite of the blog: An extremely diverse, and somewhat random and chaotic mish-mash of generally brief exchanges that tend to stay limited to whatever the flavor of the day happens to be. It can be great for networking, as well as for (and this cuts both ways) getting one’s ideas out to those who otherwise might not be exposed to or challenged by them. At the same time, the 140 character limit can be a bit maddening at times. (I’ve had exchanges where I’ve had to break up a “single” post into ten or more tweets, which can be a real headache to say the least).

So, my hope for the Facebook page is that it can function as a sort of happy medium between the two, combining the broad community aspect of twitter with the clearer, prosier communicative space of the blog. Ideally, discussions there can be more in-depth and constructive than is possible on twitter, but also more multi-directional and inclusive of wider audiences than the comments sections of this blog are likely to be.

Hopefully, the result of getting this all set up now will be a smoother and more impactful “re-launch” when my schedule permits me to start posting a lot more content, and subsequently a more enjoyable experience for all involved. Stay tuned…


Browsing through the #atheist twitter hashtag, I came upon this tweet by @LaurentRA:

Okay #atheists, where the hell is your raising a stink about this??

The shortened url links to an absolutely horrific article in the Daily Mail on the beheading of a Sudanese man in Saudi Arabia for the “crime” of … “sorcery”.

Although I disagree with LaurentRA’s implication that atheists would generally not be outraged by this, I absolutely agree that we all should be. I urge you to read the entire article in all its gruesome detail, which literally turned my stomach and left me wondering if there is any Islamic blasphemic equivalent to “Jesus fucking Christ!”, which happened to be my first utterance upon reading the article.

I won’t presume to know LaurentPA’s exact reasons for directing the tweet at atheists, but there are common complaints, usually issued by the Christian faithful (“Christian” is in LaurentPA’s twitter profile description), that for various reasons – sometimes political correctness, sometimes bitterness at the faith in which people were raised, sometimes purely out of spite or animosity – atheists are “too hard” on Christian religions and “too soft” on Islam.

There may be a degree of truth to this. And there may be some good reasons as well as some bad reasons why it happens. One factor that comes into play is that Western atheists generally react most strongly against Western religions, which hold majority positions of social and political power in their regional societies. Atheists in Nebraska are legitimately more worried about Christians replacing actual biology with pseudoscientific creationism in school science classrooms than they are about the potential implementation of sharia law because, well, there’s a much higher chance of the former really happening. So in terms of immediate concerns most American atheists (and I see that LaurentPA is in Virginia) locate Islam on a less immediate orbit of concern.

That said, it is absolutely true that what concerns atheists about religion – the harm that it does to the well being of individuals and societies, to human rights and to prospects for peace and civility – should not be contained in a localized bubble, but should encompass a global awareness.

I’m reminded of the Bruce Springstein song, The Ghost of Tom Joad:

Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”

Whenever, wherever there’s a religious justification for beating down the human rights of individuals or populations, whenever and wherever people are dehumanized in the name of imaginary legends and ancient texts, all atheists who are humanists (and most of us are) should be there, ready to fight against them.

Fight against unjust beheadings in Saudi Arabia.

Fight against the religion-based oppression of women in Afghanistan.

But also:

Fight against unjust executions in Texas and Georgia.

Fight against the religion-based gender oppression (most specifically in the areas of reproductive rights and sexual orientation) in the United States.

Yes, LaurentRA, in terms of the harm which is being done by the religious these days, Islam probably wins first prize.

But that is no automatic exemption for Christianity, or any other religion which causes people to accept believing in things for no good reason with no good evidence, and therefore opens the door to people actually doing harmful things for no good reason and with no good evidence that their actions are, in fact, morally justifiable. For the most part:

Only the religious (especially Catholics) institutionally cover up child rape and protect the rapists.

Only the religious (including Christians) engage in “ethnic cleansing” (which is in fact, in practically every case, religious cleansing)

Only the religious (including Christians) mutilate genitalia (and yes, this includes circumcision).

Only the religious (including Christians) believe homosexuality is a sin.

Only the religious (including Christians) commit holy wars and genocides in the name of their gods.

And, LaurentRA, only skeptics (as, again, you describe yourself in your twitter profile) who fail to apply their skepticism to the theological realm remain theists. The only logical conclusion for skeptics who apply their skepticism to all aspects of their belief system is atheism. Skeptics require evidence, most especially in regards to extraordinary claims. And religions (including Christianity) make the absolute most extraordinary clams while providing absolutely no evidence of their veracity.

Atheism and secular humanism, on the other hand, are the only hope for a future in which we will see no more socially or nationally sanctioned executions or human rights abuses. Because the the only way the world will be free from the moral sanctioning of such crimes is to free itself from the fairy tales which people create to perpetuate them.

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