Tag Archive: atheist


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.

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I’m happy to say that The Atheist Den has been added to The Atheist Blogroll, which is run by mojoey (you can follow him on twitter @mojoey). You can see the blogroll in my sidebar. The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.

The Orange County Regiser has this account of a recent anti-religious demonstration by the Southern California group Backyard Skeptics:

Atheist group criticizes Christianity, Bible verses

ORLY? What a shocker…

About 15 members of the group Backyard Skeptics participated in the demonstration, some displaying posters with phrases such as: “Smile. You’re not alone. Millions are good without God” and “Worship me or I’ll send you to eternal hell … Have a nice day … (signed) God.”

The group’s leader, Bruce Gleason, along with a fellow member, tore up sheets of paper printed with verses from the Bible to make their point.

One paper that was torn to pieces was printed with the verse, Matthew 5:29, which states: “So if your eye – even your good eye – causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away.” Another, which was torn, Corinthians 14:34, states “The women are to keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak.”

A this point it should be said that prior to this event, the story was badly misreported. The media had taken the “atheists are going to rip up bibles” meme and run with it, which clearly was incorrect. And in fact I went on a little twitter rant (starting with this tweet) about how I didn’t support the group’s tactics. So I’ll take this opportunity to retract my previous criticism. Symbolically and as a matter of fact, printing up individual pages with specific verses and ripping them up is substantively different from destroying books. I have a problem with the whole book burning m.o., but not with what the Backyard Skeptics actually did.

Moving on, the part of the story that really caught my eye was this:

Isabel Moore of Huntington Beach, a self-professed “born-again Christian,” said the group is taking specific verses out of context.

“Most would have a different meaning if taken in proper context,” Moore said. “We have to read the whole passage and not just one verse.”

Perhaps the most vocal of those disagreeing with the Backyard Skeptics was Greg Allen of Santa Ana.

Allen, a Christian, said he spends most Saturdays preaching at the pier.

“There is a level of frustration when you deal with the type of argument that they bring,” Allen said. “They misrepresent the Christian view and what the Bible is actually presenting.”

“…a different meaning if taken in proper context…”

“They misrepresent the Christian view…”

The “out of context” defense of the bible is one of the most common, and most fallacious arguments that Christians (and Muslims, and most devout religious believers of any faith) put forth. The idea is usually that a) we need to understand the historical context of that time, and b) the criticized passages from these holy texts make more sense if you read them in context.

So my first question would be this: Continue reading

On twitter and elsewhere, there has been some confusion about the name “denbutsu”, so I’d like to clear this up right from the get go.

I originally started using the name on the message board Pro Sports Daily, where I primarily posted about the Denver Nuggets and all things NBA, as well as the Denver Broncos. My original user name over there was JesusBong, which I had chosen for its irreverence and because I just loved this picture, which I used as my avatar. But as my involvement on that site got heavier, I spent more and more time there during my lunch breaks at an office where I worked at the time. The fear of someone looking over my shoulder and seeing something that could potentially get me into trouble led me to request a name change.

I chose “denbutsu” as a combination of the two places I call home: Colorado, where I was born, and Japan, where I’ve spent most of my adult life. The “den” is for Denver, and the “-butsu” comes from the Japanese word daibutsu, which means Great Buddha. One of Japan’s most famous cultural icons is the Great Buddha in Kamakura, which is just a stone’s throw away from where I live in southern Yokohama. I chose that image for my avatar because a) it represents where I live, b) it looks “person-like” so it works for an avvy, and c) I just think it looks cool. And it just stuck. I’ve been using it for a long time now.

I’m an atheist, so for me it has no meaning beyond the aesthetic and cultural. And while I do consider Buddhism to be among the more innocuous of the world’s religions, especially here in Japan where it takes on a largely secular form, I myself am not a Buddhist.

I actually did consider Continue reading

Hello everyone, denbutsu here wishing you a warm welcome to my new blog.

Why am I doing this? Truthfully, the main reason is that until now I’ve mostly been using twitter for my atheist musings, but I’ve come to find the format constraining. I’m tired of making long chains of tweets (1/7, 2/7, 3/7, etc.) to write about my generally verbose views. I figured a blog would just allow for a more comfortable space to do that, as well as provide a bit more flexibility in terms of sharing video, pictures, and quotes from other articles and blogs.

It’s also my hope that raising my “officially atheist” profile a little will allow me to make some inroads in the international atheist community, and I have some vague ambitions of getting something off the ground here in Japan if there are numbers.

So here we go. Hate to get so incredibly geeky on my first post, but this quote from J.R.R. Tolkein does come to mind:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say.  “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Here’s to the great unknown, and keeping our feet as we venture into it. Cheers!

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