Tag Archive: religion


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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[via atheist-community.org]

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!

Reporter: “You were trailing most of the game, but you were able to come back in the final minutes for the big win. Can you tell us how that felt?

Quarterback: “Well, first of all, I’d like to remind everyone that there is no God, and that everything that happend on the field tonight was the result of purely human endeavors, accomplished through a perfectly natural mix of some good genetic luck, a ton of hard work and the ingenuity of some brilliant minds. So nobody’s prayers were answered, and rather than thanking a nonexistent God, I’d like to thank my teammates and coaches, and all the other actual real people who helped make this happen…”

The Orange Crush defense of 1977. I was five years old, and I remember it well.

After all, I had the entire Orange Crush can collection on my bookcase. For those too young (or disinterested) to remember, that was a popular orange soda at the time, and the Denver Broncos adopted its name for their dominant defense, where Lyle Alzado and Randy Gradishar were the heroes of the team, overshadowing quarterback Craig Morton. That Broncos team would be the first to reach the Superbowl, only to fall to the Dallas Cowboys.

From then on there wouldn’t be another real bright spot until 1983, when Denver drafted the young Stanford hotshot John Elway. After a rocky start, he soon changed the ethos and the future history of the team by making it his own, a transformation crystallized by “The Drive”, Elway’s epic AFC Championship performance in which he commandeered a 98 yard comeback victory against the Cleveland Browns.

That was January 11th, 1987. Seven months and three days later, on August 14th, Tim Tebow was born.

In all my years of Bronco fandom, from 1977, through the early Elway peaks and disappointments, through their two Superbowl victories which finally came to pass in the late 90s, through all the ups and downsthe team and its fans went through over the decades, I never knew two things:

I never knew the political affiliations of John Elway or any other Broncos player.

And I also never knew their religious beliefs.

In Colorado, John Elway was a universally acceptable hero to the state. Had he used his status to promote a personal, and divisive political and/or religious agenda, it would have tarnished his legacy, as well as the ability of lifelong, loyal Broncos fans to enjoy the sweetness of those two Superbowl victories without any trace of bitterness or awkwardness.

Fortunately for all Broncos fans, and for Elway’s good standing in history, he played only one singular role as quarterback of the Denver Broncos: Quarterback of the Denver Broncos.

Unfortunately for all Broncos fans and NFL fans who do not subscribe to Tiim Tebow’s personal brand of Christian fundamentalism, or who simply value the arena of sports as an apolitical and areligious realm, he has chosen to play a dual role. One aspect of his chosen role is as Quarterback, but the other is as Proselytizer-in-Chief of the Denver Broncos.

By adding that religious dimension, by inappropriately abusing his position of privilege to wear the Broncos uniform, using it as a platform to advance his personal evangelical agenda, he has stolen from us not only the chance to appreciate him solely as an athlete, but also the ability to unambiguously, unreservedly support him as the leader of our team. (He has also deprived himself of the opportunity for his career as a professional football player to be evaluated primarily by his accomplishments on the field, but as this is his own problem, I won’t concern myself with it further here).

The U.S. military has a very sound policy regarding what political actions its members can and cannot engage in. The policy does not completely prevent people from engaging in partisan political activity, but where they are allowed to do so, they are specifically required not to be in uniform, and not to be engaged in any capacity as an official representative of the Armed Forces.

One important (and obvious) reason for this (another being that it is most likely unconstitutional) is that the U.S military does not selectively represent and defend only Democratic Americans, or only Republican Americans, or only Libertarian, Green or what have you Americans; it stands for and protects all Americans, and as such its members (politically opinionated and active as many of them are) are required, when officially representing the United States, to keep on a good game face and conduct themselves in a manner which is not divisive or alienating, and which does not mistakenly create the appearance that the political views of individual members of the Armed Forces represent the official stance of the nation which they serve.

When it comes to politics – and religion – professional sports leagues and franchises would be well served to follow suit.

I should add that I think this should apply across the board to all expressions of divisive religious or political views, including those I happen to agree with. Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns, for example, has a lot of mostly liberal political views that I tend to share. But although his opinions would be more palatable to me than Tebow’s evangelicalism, I would oppose just as much his promoting them in his capacity as an official representative of the NBA.

Nash remains wildly popular in Arizona, the Southwest’s bastion of conservatism. How? Simple. He keeps his progressive views separate from his basketball career and his role as the public face of the Suns. He understands what it means to be a professional. You will never hear him (as Tebow incessantly “Tebows” and praises his “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”) endorse gun control or a more humane immigration policy. As an action which would alienate a significant segment of Phoenix fans who just want to enjoy some basketball and support the team, it would be inappropriate, unfair and divisive for him to do so.

Likewise, it should go without saying that the Denver Broncos are not the “Denver Christian Broncos”, the “Denver Broncos for Christ”, the “Evangelical Denver Broncos”, or even (despite the bumper stickers asking then why are sunsets orange and blue?) “God’s Own Denver Broncos”. They are the DENVER Broncos. And they are there for ALL the people of Denver and Colorado. Not just those who happen to have the same worldview as Tim Tebow.

Imagine if, after a game, an NFL quarterback actually dared to say the (fake) quote at the top of this post. Can you imagine the outrage? Fox News would immediately be running a 24-hour smear campaign to get him fired. All the pundits and talking heads, all of ESPN’s experts, all of CNN’s celebrity newscasters, to a person they would all be screaming their outrage at how offensive and disrespectful such a statement is to all of those with deeply held religious beliefs.

In Tebow’s case, however, they pretty much rounded up the wagons to encircle him with a ring of protection (if not, as in the case of Fox, outright promotion) of his “rights” to preach and proselytize his religious propaganda while working in his official capacity as a Bronco.

But please, let’s keep in mind that while a server at Denny’s has the constitutionally guaranteed right to tell one of his or her customers to fuck off, Denny’s also has the right to fire that person, as well as to establish rules of appropriate and inappropriate behavior which their employees must adhere to if they want to keep their jobs.

Does Tebow have the “right” to speak his mind? Of course, but that does not always make it right, appropriate, or tasteful to do so. And when, as the highest profile representative of a massive sports franchise backed loyally by millions of people, he engages in activities which alienate, infuriate, bother or otherwise turn off a huge number of fans who have been lifelong supporters of that team, well, it just ain’t right.

Unfortunately, I think we must, until we get indications otherwise, ssume Tebow won’t “see the light”, and will continue to prioritize his selfish personal religious agenda over the better interests of the entire Broncos fan base (as Dr. House said, “Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be religious people.”).

And so, I would urge the Broncos, and all professional sports teams for that matter, to institute a policy, modeled on that of the military, to require their players to refrain from engaging in overtly religious and political activities while in uniform and/or while officially representing their organization. To demand that their players respect the uniform, which not only represents their team, their league and their sport, but also represents the noble ideal that the world of sports might always remain one of the few last spheres in which people of differing religions, political views, backgrounds, or any other imaginable differences which might otherwise set them apart, can meet on neutral ground in a spirit of friendship and peace, and just… play.

Then I, and everyone else, can shut the hell up about all of this and just watch the damn games with no reservations.

[Note: I started writing this in December but due to a busy January did not find the time to finish it until now. Obviously, since Tebow and the Broncos got punted out of the playoffs weeks ago, this post has lost some of its currency and cache, but I hope it won’t have lost its relevance in the bigger picture of sports, religion and politics.]

Oh, Christians in the U.S. have it so rough.

Everywhere they look, they see their “right” to flex their majority muscle and discriminate against non-believers and other non-Christians being assailed.

They whine about the “War on Christmas”, when, every year, Christmas positively dominates the social, popular and commercial culture throughout all of November and December.

They cry about gender and sexual orientation rights being “shoved down their throats” (the phrase they usually use – I’ll spare the Freudian analysis for now), going so far as to legislate their “right” to bully gay kids.

The problem with all of this is that none of these so-called “rights” are rights at all. They are the benefits Christians have traditionally received from preferential treatment resulting from their majority position of power and the subsequent stronghold Christianity has over American society and culture.

And now that their privilege is being challenged by increasingly vocal minorities of nonbelievers and members of other religions, who are calling for a more fair and level cultural playing field, some Christians are quick and vociferous in playing the hurt feelings card and drumming up false allegations of anti-Christian discrimination.

Take Mathew D. Staver, chairman of the right wing fundamentalist culture war organization known as the Liberty Counsel. According to Christian Today, he

said that the [American Humanist Association’s] campaign was a crass attempt at restricting the religious freedom of Christians passionate about Christmas. As the birthdate of Christianity, he said no other holiday deserved more public worship. […]

Staver said his organization fights censorship of the holiday’s Christian traditions with its “Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign,” now in its ninth year. The initiative educates society and businesses on the Christian faith, he said, ensuring they keep its part in Christmas intact through litigation if they don’t recognize believers’ right to religious freedom.

“People either censor Christmas out of ignorance concerning religious law or they worry they may offend someone else,” Staver said. “Retailers, meanwhile, should not profit off Christmas while pretending it doesn’t exist.” […]

Staver countered that groups like AHA shouldn’t analyze Christmas given they lacked compassion for its spiritual basis. This fundamental separation, he said, meant that they often disrespected the rights of Christians practicing their faith.

“I think a campaign like this shows how bankrupt the AHA is by trying to offend people by secularizing a holiday like this,” Staver said. “They have a right to their own viewpoint but the timing is very inappropriate. It shows how out of step they are from the rest of society.”

So what horrific action did the American Humanist Association pursue to “restrict religious freedom”, to “censor Christmas out of ignorance” in such a “disrespectful”, “bankrupt”, and “inappropriate way?

Well, take a look:

That’s right, they simply asked people not to discriminate against atheists.

As with all things pertaining to religion: Simply unbelievable.

George Carlin: Religion is bullshit

One for the ages:

 

Hitch connects the dots:

Thus, as I was going on to argue, there is no reason to suppose that the death penalty is a deterrent. And then it hit me. I had been hammering on an open door. Nobody had been bothering to argue that the rope or the firing squad, or the gas chamber, or “Old Sparky” the bristle-making chair, or the deadly catheter were a deterrent. The point of the penalty was that it was death. It expressed righteous revulsion and symbolized rectitude and retribution. Voila tout!The reason why the United States is alone among comparable countries in its commitment to doing this is that it is the most religious of those countries. (Take away only China, which is run by a very nervous oligarchy, and the remaining death-penalty states in the world will generally be noticeable as theocratic ones.)

Once we clear away the brush, then, we can see the crystalline purity of the lex talionis and the principle of an eye for an eye. (You might wish to look up the chapter of Exodus in which that stipulation occurs: it is as close to sheer insane ranting and wicked babble as might well be wished, and features the famous ox-goring and witch-burning code on which, one sometimes fears, too much of humanity has been staked.)

Read the entire piece at Lapham’s Quarterly.

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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