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Are you an Atheist or Agnostic?

by Michael Shermer, Apr 10 2012

Recently my friend and colleague in science and skepticism Neil deGrasse Tyson, issued a public statement via in which he stated that he dislikes labels because they carry with them all the baggage that the person thinks they already know about that particular label, and thus he prefers no label at all when it comes to the god question and simply calls himself an agnostic.

cover image

The Believing Brain
by Michael Shermer

In this book, I present my theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished. Sam Harris calls The Believing Brain “a wonderfully lucid, accessible, and wide-ranging account of the boundary between justified and unjustified belief.” Leonard Mlodinow calls it “a tour de force integrating neuroscience and the social sciences.”

I have already written about this many times over the decades, and my 1999 book How We Believe outlines in detail why I too hate labels. In fact, in my later book, The Mind of the Market, I explained why I also do not like the label “libertarian” because people automatically think this means believing something that I very likely do not believe (e.g., that humans are by nature purely selfish, that we have no moral obligation to help others in need, that greed is the only motive that counts in business, and that Ayn Rand was actually the Messiah), and instead I prefer to go issue by issue. Nevertheless, the label “libertarian” and “atheist” stick, and as I explained in my latest book, The Believing Brain, I’ve largely given up the anti-label struggle and just call myself by these labels. In effect, what I once thought of as intellectual laziness on the part of my interlocuters who did not seem to want to bother to actually read my clarifications and what, exactly, I do believe about this or that issue, I now see as the normal process of cognitive shortcutting. Time is short and information is vast. Most of the time our brains just pigeonhole information into categories we already know in order to move on to the next problem to solve, such as why not one Mexican restaurant band I have ever asked seems to know one of the greatest Spanish pieces ever produced: Malagueña. It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a tortilla.

Still, it is worth thinking about what the difference is between atheist and agnostic. According to the Oxford English Dictionary: Theism is “belief in a deity, or deities” and “belief in one God as creator and supreme ruler of the universe.” Atheism is “Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God.” Agnosticism is “unknowing, unknown, unknowable.”

Agnosticism was coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley to describe his own beliefs:

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist…I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer. They [believers] were quite sure they had attained a certain ‘gnosis,’—had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.

Of course, no one is agnostic behaviorally. When we act in the world, we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God, so by default we must make a choice, if not intellectually then at least behaviorally. To this extent, I assume that there is no God and I live my life accordingly, which makes me an atheist. In other words, agnosticism is an intellectual position, a statement about the existence or nonexistence of the deity and our ability to know it with certainty, whereas atheism is a behavioral position, a statement about what assumptions we make about the world in which we behave.

When most people employ the word “atheist,” they are thinking of strong atheism that asserts that God does not exist, which is not a tenable position (you cannot prove a negative). Weak atheism simply withholds belief in God for lack of evidence, which we all practice for nearly all the gods ever believed in history. As well, people tend to equate atheism with certain political, economic, and social ideologies, such as communism, socialism, extreme liberalism, moral relativism, and the like. Since I am a fiscal conservative, civil libertarian, and most definitely not a moral relativist, this association does not fit me. The word “atheist” is fine, but since I publish a magazine called Skeptic and write a monthly column for Scientific American called “Skeptic,” I prefer that as my label. A skeptic simply does not believe a knowledge claim until sufficient evidence is presented to reject the null hypothesis (that a knowledge claim is not true until proven otherwise). I do not know that there is no God, but I do not believe in God, and have good reasons to think that the concept of God is socially and psychologically constructed.

The burden of proof is on believers to prove God’s existence—not on nonbelievers to disprove it—and to date theists have failed to prove God’s existence, at least by the high evidentiary standards of science and reason. So we return again to the nature of belief and the origin of belief in God. In The Believing Brain I present extensive evidence to demonstrate quite positively that humans created gods and not vice versa.

352 Responses to “Are you an Atheist or Agnostic?”

  1. Crabe says:

    “The burden of proof is on believers to prove God’s existence”

    Or perhaps the existence or non existence of a deity or something near this concept is simply not a pertinent matter for sciences (in the broadest sense)?

    Maybe it is just the always sterile debate between theist (of all kind) and atheist. The debate that brings us creationists nonsenses (to “proove” god(s) exist(/s)). Unfortunately, as “by definition” “god” is an entity omnipotent and omniscient, it is simply beyond science, it is only faith, another human brain capacity not to mistake with supposition and reasoning.

    For instance, why so many people say they “believe” / “do not believe” in the theory of evolution? It is not a belief system, it is a scientific theory. You have right to desagree with it, but believing or not believing in it is a nonsense… Just as trying to “prove” or “disprove” the existence or non-existence of “god” with scientific methods.

    • Agilemind says:

      If we hypothesize that God can exists in some material form or that it can interact with and influence the material world (eg. answer prayers, send messages, create disasters etc…) then science in theory can address the issue, although the methods/techonologies to do so may not exist at present.

      Only if we hypothesize a God that is immaterial and thus not present in this universe and is unable to interact with/influence this universe would it be outside of science, however, if that is the case it is a pretty impotent deity and an irrelevant question in all practical matters.

      • Teamonger says:

        Being naturalistic, science cannot say anything about the interactive God either. To postulate such an entity is to endow it with purpose, but science is a poor tool indeed to ascertain such. A deity might purposely hide itself from our scrutiny, ensuring that its interactions appear random and natural.

      • Brenden says:

        A god could not hide behind appearing random or natural forever.

        We can know virtually everything about our immediate experience given enough time and technology. If god is acting so far from our normal experience that we cannot detect any fluctuation from the natural order of things, then what effect does this god you postulate really have?

        Certainly not anything close to the power granted to him by theists.

      • Andreas Egeland says:

        Well it could, given the often held base premise that God is perfect, however I tend to view that God as a pretty cruel and calluous God in any case, so the question of him existing becomes irrelevant, as I would not worship him.

      • Teamonger says:

        A sufficiently powerful god could certainly hide forever by balancing his interactions. For example, for whatever reason he could arrange that person X be hit by a car, or person Y win the Lotto. So long as accident rates or win frequencies do not change, how would time or technology help you detect it? I do not postulate nor believe in such an entity… but the mindless farts who proclaim “anything could be happening, man!” are technically correct, with enough imagination.

      • Crabe says:

        Since “god” or “gods” depending on the religion is considered as the origin of the world – and perhaps universe – it seems logical to think it is by definition not a subject of science which studies the universe we live in.

        I think the idea of a man with magical power living atop a mountain or above clouds is now marginal in modern religion – but I may be wrong – not being a specialist of religions.

        One of the think I wanted to suggest is that the antagonism between atheists and theist of all kinds is a bad thing for everyone.

        The confusion between science and religion and the though they should be in concurrence seems to be promoted by to kind of peoples, and either way, its a bad thing:

        Some atheist sometimes pretend they can debunk the existence of god on the absence of proof. religion is not proof based. It is faith, and have nothing to do with science.

        This behavior then drive creationists crazy (or crazier – they are already crackpots) and they try to transform or disguise their religion in science… Doing so, they do more harm than good to their own religion.

        both attitudes are arrogant and show a lack of respect for ones belief. Atheists should not lower themselves to the level of creationists.

        Moreover, in a sense, strongly believing there is no “god” too is some kind of religion, a strong materialist one. Saying “I don’t know” as Huxley did is perhaps the single possibility to lack any form of religion.

        I continue to think more respect on both sides would be a great think for science (religions know how to take care of themselves).

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        Yes, religion is faith based, and that is why we should not accept its conclusions. Faith is not a virtue; it is a vice.

        The antagonism between atheists and theists is a good thing for everyone. People who disagree with each other about basic issues are naturally going to feel some antagonism. That doesn’t mean they need to be physically aggressive or even verbally uncivil towards each other.

    • ullrich fischer says:

      I agree with the article on all points except one: As an atheist, I know there is no god in the same sense that I know that there is no fairy at the bottom of my garden. I look around and see no evidence for either that fairy, or for god. I don’t know there is no such fairy in the same way that I know that 2 + 2 is four, but with the same certainty that I know the sun will rise tomorrow (which is < 100% since any number of calamities could conceivably prevent that sunrise), I am certain there is no meddlesome, interventionist, vicious god. Of course, I have no evidence one way or the other and probably could never have such evidence as to the existence or not of a clockmaker god who, once she created the universe, left things to run along according to her immutable laws of physics. On that question, I tend to agree with Dr. Lawrence Krauss as he explains his ideas in "A Universe From Nothing".

      On the other hand, the simulation hypothesis is becoming more compelling as we get closer and closer to creating something like SimCity but with self-aware characters. If such simulations are possible, there will be an almost infinite number of them throughout the space and time of the "real" universe, and it is therefore far more likely that we live in a simulation than in the possibly unique real world. Even if some form of the multiverse hypothesis turns out to be real, the ratio of real universes to simulations would still be vastly weighted to the simulations side. If we are in such a simulation, there is a good deal of evidence we are living in some higher level teen-ager's version of Doom. A systematic search for inconsistencies in the laws of physics in our visible universe might reveal an imperfect simulation, but it the simulation was detailed enough, we would never be able to detect it. The fact that everything fundamental in physics seems to be turning out to be quantized is indirect evidence that our space time continuum (not really a continuum, if everything is indeed quantized) is represented ultimately by bits in a supercomputer.

  2. Trimegistus says:

    If you think about it, atheism — even strong atheism — is a more “humble” position than agnosticism. The atheist says “I haven’t seen any evidence of God’s existence” which is simple and straightforward. The agnostic says “I don’t know if God exists — but I know all the religious traditions are wrong,” which is illogical and rather arrogant.

    It’s almost a paradox.

    • Phea says:

      So, to not believe in mythology and at the same time, not be sure of the answer to the question, “Did matter begat intelligence, or did intelligence begat matter?”, is arrogant? If so, I guess I’m guilty.

      • required name says:

        You’re assuming there’s a difference, you big clump of intelligent matter.

      • Phea says:

        I’ve just observed the way intelligence manipulates matter, and the other way around, that’s all. Really no contest there.

    • tmac57 says:

      The agnostic says “I don’t know if God exists — but I know all the religious traditions are wrong,”

      I’m calling ‘straw man’ argument on this.
      Also,would it be logical to think that ALL religious traditions are right? And if not,which one would it be logical to say is correct? Wouldn’t it be rather arrogant to assume without evidence which one is the ‘right’ one? What would constitute evidence for a firm belief in a particular god?

      • noen says:

        “Also,would it be logical to think that ALL religious traditions are right?”

        Many people feel that all religious traditions speak to deeper “spiritual” (meaning social) truths. So yes, many people believe that all religions are kinda more or less saying about the same things.

        That we should love one another unconditionally. That we should not judge others because we are also not without fault. That we should treat others as we would wish to be treated.

        All else is commentary, including unending wanker debates about the existence of god.

      • Ned Carter says:

        “many people believe that all religions are kinda more or less saying about the same things.

        That we should love one another unconditionally. That we should not judge others because we are also not without fault. That we should treat others as we would wish to be treated.”

        Not sure which religious texts you are reading, but that is in no way what they all say. Those things may be in them, but that doesn’t make them universal. Ask the Jews, Ask the “witches”, ask the entire continent of Europe during the inquisition, ask Black Slaves (slavery defended by the church), ask women in strict religious communities (islam, christian, etc.) TODAY. Most religions preach hatred, misogyny, ethnic superiority, and various other vile things.

      • noen says:

        “Ask the Jews”

        It is an extremely bad argument to say that because any one group suffered oppression at the hands of a few that therefore all religions preach hate. It’s a sweeping generalization fallacy which is a favorite fallacy among bigots of all stripes.

      • Bob Cob says:

        “That we should love one another unconditionally. That we should not judge others because we are also not without fault. That we should treat others as we would wish to be treated.”

        1. Really? These are the deeper things to which all religions speak?

        2. You do not need religion to believe any of these things.

      • noen says:

        1. Yes. Any course on comparative religion will tell you the same.
        2. From the fact that you do not need religion to be morally good it does not follow that religion is evil.

      • Etherman says:

        I agree with what you say, however I also think that the “many people” are mistaken about the deeper truths that “all religions” speak to. This assumption is made by people who are ignorant of what the various religions actually preach, and is in fact derived from the in-built evolutionarily-designed empathy in our fantastic material brains. It is the current standard of acceptibility at the end of Dawkins’ moral zeitgeist – it is what secular humanists preach, and what people ignorant of religion think that “all religions” preach.

      • noen says:

        I take you to be saying that you agree that people believe religions teach moral universals that are more or less similar but that they in fact do not.

        You claim is false and vaguely citing Richard Dawkins’ hateful and bigoted diatribes against religion hardly supports your case.

        You also seem to argue that because humans have a capacity for empathy that therefore religion is evil. Which is bizarre bordering on the absurd.

      • ullrich fischer says:

        All religions do not preach the same things. There are some similarities across religions, but there is a huge difference between what a hard core Catholic Bishop preaches and what liberation Catholics preach. There is an even wider difference between progressive muslims and the Taliban. The thing common to all religions is that no matter what they preach, their beliefs are based on looser or tighter adherence to some kind of dogma which by definition is not susceptible to change based on changing social conditions and scientific evidence. It took the Catholic church over 400 years and thousands of gallons of innocent blood to accept that Galileo was right in suggesting that the sun did not revolve around the earth. In general, the longer a particular religion has been extant, the more atrocities can be laid at its doors.

      • noen says:

        “All religions do not preach the same things.”

        Good thing I never said that then isn’t it? I said that many religions speak to deeper truths. The idea that there is a commonality to what the major religions teach is hardly new.

        Religion is not really about whether or not god exists. That’s really just for atheists and fundamentalists to bicker over. People have lives to live and religion helps them to situate themselves in the social world.

        So, religion answers he question “How should we then live”. Most people just don’t care what you believe or not. They do care how you behave or if what you believe might indicate how you’ll behave. For many people atheist = “flaming self-absorbed asshole”. Whether valid or not that is what they think. Being a bigger self absorbed asshole is unlikely to change their minds.

        Since religion is about what direction society should go in the way to get people to re-examine their beliefs is to show them your path is better. You do that not by talk but by actually being a better person. But atheism doesn’t make one a better person because it is without content. Indeed it seems to only encourage narcissism and anti-social behavior.

        Religion builds community. Atheism as it is currently conceived is corrosive to community. We cannot survive without a community to support us. Therefore people conclude that atheism should be avoided or opposed. It doesn’t matter that you want to discuss god’s existence because that isn’t wheat people are worried about. *Both* sides get confused over matters of fact versus matters of values.

        Change the debate to something other than matters of fact and you might actually make some progress. But if the internet Village Atheist is any indication that ain’t *ever* gonna happen.

      • Phea says:

        You asked in a later part of this thread, or rather stated that religion answers, “how should we live”, as if that is a question only religion is capable of answering. That assumption, if you indeed made it, is total and complete bullshit. Here’s how I, as an atheist/agnostic, respond to that question. We should live with the knowledge and understanding that the sum total of our lives here will either make the planet a better place, or a worse place. If because you walked upon the earth, and made it a worse place, what a foul, wasted life you’ve lived… and no further punishment is required. If your time here has been a plus, if you’ve made the world a better place, than no further reward is necessary. It’s a rather simple, basic truth that does not need any religious dogma, faith, or rules to validate it. Are you a PLUS or a MINUS? Or maybe more importantly, what have you TRIED to be?

    • miller says:

      Let agnostics speak for themselves.

    • John Sandlin says:

      If an agnostic is arrogant, then I’m the most arrogant person you could ever meet. However, your statement of the agnostic position seems incorrect. Let me see if I can fix it for you:

      “I don’t know if God exists. I also don’t know if any religions are wrong.”

      The truest agnostic position is that we don’t know. Either way.


    • Doug says:

      I disagree, on the grounds that agnosticism does not preclude religious belief. I personally know of a number of people who don’t know if God exists (that is, they are agnostics) but still choose to believe.

      • Suri k says:

        Then we could also say that all believers are agnostics because they think god exists but they dont really Know .

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      In one sense aren’t both atheists and theists agnostics? Aren’t we all agnostics? Nobody knows that God exists or that he does not exist. When “agnostic” is defined in this way, it really looses its value since it is applicable across the board.

      I think a better way of defining “agnostic” (a way which is now quite common) is “a person who has not decided whether God probably exists or probably does not exist.” This person may be pulled equally in both directions and is stuck in the middle.

  3. Other Paul says:

    Or perhaps the existence or non existence of a deity or something near this concept is simply not a pertinent matter for sciences (in the broadest sense)?

    Whilst that may be the case in this particular instance, it’s simpler than that. The believer in God is just one particular example of a much more general position of being an asserter that something is true. The burden of proof is on the asserter. It doesn’t matter what the assertion is.

    • Søren Furbo Skov says:

      That doesn’t quite cut it: “God does not exist” can be reformulated into “of all the tings that exist, none of them is God”, which is an assertion that something is true. This is the case for every assertion, the division of positions into “asserting a thing is true” and “asserting a thing is false” is meaningless. The burden of proof is on the person making the extraordinary claim.

      This error is also made in the blog text, when it is claimed that you cannot prove a negative. “two and two does not equal five” is a negative, and that can certainly be proved. The reason that God cannot be disproved is that “God exists” is an extremely vague hypothesis. Without defining what characteristics God has, it is impossible to say anything about it. With enough characteristics, we can prove or disprove the existence of God, as shown by #4 below.

      • JD says:

        Tomes have been written about the characteristics of one or another god, so a lack of description is hardly the issue. Generally they are said to have super-natural abilities, a contradiction in terms since nature encompasses everything in existence.

      • mach says:

        Your example of proving a negative is in an entirely closed logical system. It’s possible there, yes, but empirical proof is a whole different matter. We’re not capable of examining everything that exists to see if it’s god, particularly since, as you said, it’s not even a well-defined concept. When it is defined better, often it’s still in an unfalsifiable form, and any other definition results in an impossible task to prove non-existence. This is what these people should be saying is impossible, not simply “a negative.”

        But then again, very few people claim to know for sure there is no god, so it’s somewhat of a straw man anyway. The much more common position is that “I don’t believe in a god because I don’t have evidence of such a thing.”

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        There is a consensus on what characteristics the hypothetical God has. If we can not disprove the existence of this God, we can strongly undermine the existence by good evidence and arguments.

  4. klem says:

    ““The burden of proof is on believers to prove God’s existence”

    That’s easy, you simply redefine God. If you define God as that big oat tree in your backyard, well its pretty hard not to prove the existance of God. That’s basically what I did, I redefined God to my liking so now I am a theist but my God is not likely the same one you have.

    I do not beleive in that ghostly old grey bearded guy who lives up in cloudy heaven making planets and bacteria on his work bench, and when you die you have to defend you life to that ghostly old guy. No wonder no one belives in God anymore, its pretty rediculous if thats how you define God. And sadly thats how most people define God.

    So just redefine God, that way proving it’s existance is easy.

    • tmac57 says:

      I think you buried the lead here. You have a tree in your backyard that produces oats!? My God!

    • Joe says:

      The perfectly subjective god – your unique interpretation – that hears your prayers, fulfills your unique needs and conforms to your individual sensibilities of who god is and should be – is an unstoppable meme. The very idea of god(s) is expansive, given to proliferation rather than definition. When the perfectly subjective god can be anything to anyone, the very word “god” loses all linguistic value – as it does not discriminate on an dimension, and the infinite becomes inverted to nothing. Such is the power of self and ego to warp objective reality.

    • Student says:

      If you rely on being disingenous with language to prove something, you can prove anything at all, and break the law of identity down to: Everything equals everything. Which is mad.

      Stick to a reasonable definition, or state your own. Of course, once you define your God as something which clearly isn’t one, you’ve lost the plot completely.

      • klem says:

        Perhaps, but it makes me a beleiver in God and at the same time I can actually prove the existance of god. I win.

    • Bob says:

      I have been skeptically assessing my belief/non-belief in “God”
      Klem, you have made a very important point: How does one define “God”! All discussions relative to theism, agnosticism, and atheism are moot unless the term “God” has the same meaning for all participants. This is akin to some politicians referring to “socialism” and all subsequent discussions without first agreeing to a common definition.
      Michael, when you state your disbelief in God, how are you defining God?

      • klem says:

        No one will answer that question, they don’t want others to criticize their definition, or to ridicule their idea of what God is.

      • Chris F.A. Johnson says:

        As an atheist, I have no need to define god.

        It is up to those proposing the existence of a god to define their proposition.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      There is a consensus among believers (roughly 70% of them) about the definition of “God.” It can be demonstrated that this God almost certainly does not exist. Other gods might exist, but their existence must be evaluated independently.

  5. klem says:

    “The burden of proof is on believers to prove God’s existence”

    And the same rule applies to beleivers in anthropogenic climate change. The burden of proof is on believers to prove it’s existance. Something that has not yet been accomplished.

    • Climate scientist says:

      Actually, it already has been proven, but you have to start looking at the science and information that is out there. Step one: Turn of Faux News…

    • John Sandlin says:


      There is sufficient evidence that the vast majority of people that study the issue professionally have conluded that it is true. Your saying there is no evidence does not negate the evidence. The argument could be made as to how much warming can be attributed to human activities, but even there, the people that have weighed the evidence have concluded that humans have a lot to answer for concerning this.

    • Gavin says:

      Yar, Klem! Jess lahk EVILution!
      If you just don’t want to believe something, no amount of proof will ever be enough.

    • Agilemind says:

      “Something that has not yet been accomplished.”

      Except it has many times to beyond a 95% level of confidence….

      • klem says:

        Hmm, that’s not according to the IPCC. In their AR4 report released in 2007, they stated clearly that it was unequivocal, humans are altering the world’s climate. The IPCC then went on to define unequivocal at a 90% confidence level. In other words the IPCC defined unequivocal as having a 1 in 10 chance of being wrong, as a climate skeptic I like those odds. Some unequivocal.

    • ullrich fischer says:

      I saw a cute photo in a series which claimed to define “irony” where there was the following message scrawled on the wall of a building which was half under water (including half of the message): “Global Warming is a Hoax!”

      Anthropogenic global warming is an extraordinary claim and we have now more than 10 years worth of extraordinary evidence that it is real. The fact that you need to have at least a rudimentary science education to understand how many of the convergent bits of evidence point together to support that claim is one reason why the fine folks who tried and succeeded in convincing a large part of the human population that smoking is good for you are now able to convince a slightly smaller fraction of the human population that global warming is a hoax.

      • klem says:

        Yup, I hear this all the time; anthropgenic climate change must be true because the skeptics are backed by the tobacco lobby.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        Roughly 85-90% of the experts in the area of climate, i.e. those who have applied the scientific method for most of their lives to the study of climatology, have concluded that global warming is real and is caused to a large extent by human activity (pollution). Most of the remaining 10-15% just have not yet decided on the matter. Almost none has sided with the opposite conclusions.

        As a person who is a not a climate scientist, this consensus is good enough for me. I will behave as if the conclusion of the consensus is correct, unless given good reason to do otherwise.

  6. quen_tin says:

    “Of course, no one is agnostic behaviorally. When we act in the world, we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God [...] agnosticism is an intellectual position [...] whereas atheism is a behavioral position”

    I am not so sure about this claim. This certainly does not concern every acts in life, but only some of them (religious practice, moral acts, intellectual discussions). So atheism is certainly not a very “visible” position, and even more so when atheists are not moral-nihilists and when believers are not churchgoers (which I think is very common, at least here in Europe). The behavioral distinction between an atheist and a believer can be very subtle, while distinguishing them as different intellectual positions is straightforward.

    Moreover, one can certainly act as if “there might be a God” (for example by being careful not to commit blasphemy or desecration, but never actually praying), which entails that agnostocism can as well be considered a behavioral position (subtlty) distinct from atheism or faith.

    The distinction between atheism and agnosticism as intellectual / behavioral positions appears to be very weak. Actually any intellectual position can be considered a behavioral one, as far as “engaging intellectual discussions” is considered a certain kind of behavior.

  7. John K. says:

    “Atheist” is a descriptor of belief, while “agnostic” is a descriptor of knowledge. Belief and knowledge are certainly related, but not necessarily directly correlated. I consider myself both an atheist and an agnostic, although in the case of gods I am only an agnostic in the weakest possible way. The uncertainty I put on the non-existence of gods is the same as that of absolute solipsism or phenomena that are by definition undetectable, the necessary uncertainty that I must maintain only for intellectual honesty. The amazing lack of evidence is too overwhelming for me to do otherwise, and the backtracking is so extreme that the definitions of gods become functionally useless.

    I have really only found this kind of word game to occur after the theist has backed the goalposts all the way out of time and space. Then somehow anything less than absolute certainty is some kind of victory they want to build on.

    • quen_tin says:

      I don’t think “agnostic” is a descriptor of knowledge, otherwise everyone could be said to be agnostic. There are degrees of belief. An agnostic is just less certain thatn an atheist that God does not exist.

      • John K. says:

        “Agnostic” can be interpreted that way, although certainty really boils down to an assessment of knowledge. There are degrees of knowledge in addition to degrees of belief, even if the terms often end up being somewhat binary in discussion.

        In the case of gods, I will only admit that I do not have the ability to observe all things at all times, so I cannot be completely certain about anything in the strictest sense (not that this is any reason to reject any null hypothesis). Anyone who is willing to admit this is indeed an agnostic as far as I am concerned. If you think you know gods exist, even if for what turns out to be bad reasons, then you are a gnostic theist. There can even be such a thing as a gnostic atheist, someone who thinks they know gods do not exist, but as Shermer points out such a position is not very defensible for very similar reasons.

        Strangely, religious disbelief seems to be the only disbelief where people tend to demand absolute (and thus impossible) certainty. It is a remarkable double standard, really.

      • Tony Castleberry says:

        With all due respect, this is nonsense. I am a strong atheist and both Shermer and you do not seem to really understand what Strong atheism is. You are right to say that agnosticism pertains only to ‘knowledge’ while theism/atheism pertain to ‘belief’ and am I glad someone said this, but Strong atheism is a very tenable position.

        Strong atheism only comes into play for ‘gods’ which are defined in impossible ways. A “God” who is both omniscient AND has free will for example, is one I can say with 100% confidence and accuracy cannot exist and logically I am right to say so. The ‘Law of Non-Contradiction’ and all that.
        For all gods which are defined in such a way(or not defined at all) that they cannot BE proven or dis-proven, Strong atheists are ‘weak atheists’ just like every other atheist.
        The nature of “atheism” changes with each “god” one could be talking about. Gaius Caesar was the ‘God’ of ancient Rome and Kim Jong Il was the ‘God’ of N. Korea at one time. I did not deny the existence of either of these gods, just as I do not deny the sun exists and is “God” to many. Here my “atheism” means “Lack of worship for things which exist”, because worship is a bad idea.

        So I am a Strong atheist(for gods which are logically impossible), a weak atheist(for gods ambiguously defined or undefined) and a strong agnostic(in that I do not think it is possible to have knowledge of a “transcendent” entity because by definition such an entity is indistinguishable from an imaginary/non-existent being).


      • John K. says:

        I don’t disagree with anything you posted. “God” is just to irritatingly ambiguous a term. Nail down a specific one that you object to and you are quickly accused of a straw man fallacy.

        Please also notice that I was talking about the existence of gods in general, the logically inconsistent ones were too trivial for me to mention. Strong atheism is indeed tenable, but only very specifically, not in the broad sense I was discussing.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        Yes, I tend to agree with you on this. Imagine a scale from 0 to 100 indicating belief in the probability of God’s existence (assuming we are using the consensus definition of “God”). I’d place myself at X, where 0<X<1. In other words, I believe that it is very very unlikely that God exists. (This is not about knowledge which is something different from belief.) I think the agnostic is the person at X=50, i.e. he beleives that God's existence is equally likely to his nonexistence. He can't make up his mind, or he has not made up his mind yet.

  8. John Myste says:

    Who created Who is not a mutually exclusive question:

    Even the most devout among us admit that humans create gods, just not ours. Here is the sequence of events:

    1. My God created humans.
    2. Humans created some gods.

    The polynesian Tiki, sometimes presumed to represent a spiritual entity, is obvious nonsense. God is not wood. However, nothing at all, now that’s God. I know it because nothing is all over the place, and I can feel God’s presence in it.

    I am perfectly confident in declaring that my omnipresent God is not wood, not stone, and is vastly superior to gods of these inferior fabrics. My God is a complete nothing.

    MacLeish described my God at the End of the World:

    Quite unexpectedly, as Vasserot
    The armless ambidextrian was lighting
    A match between his great and second toe,
    And Ralph the lion was engaged in biting
    The neck of Madame Sossman while the drum
    Pointed, and Teeny was about to cough
    In waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb—
    Quite unexpectedly the top blew off:

    And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
    Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
    There in the starless dark the poise, the hover,
    There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
    There in the sudden blackness the black pall
    Of nothing, nothing, nothing—nothing at all.

    • Student says:

      So believing in a nature spirit present in wood with supernatural abilities is less nonsense than believing in an invisible spirit which has no impact on the physical because you feel funny?

      Reasons I feel funny:

      Air to thin.
      Strong Emotion.

      All of these are better explanations for “Spiritual experiences” than “Oh, there’s a God.”, which is stupid.

      • klem says:

        That just about sums it all up.

        Most people all over the world believe God is an invisible old guy in a white robe, who makes universes and people on his work bench and watches over us from his cloudy home called heaven. Its bizarre to believe such fantasy.

        And over the centuries, millions of people were slaughtered because they didn’t believe in that invisible old guy. Outrageous.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      I think you are misusing the words “God” and “god.” According to common meanings, these words refer to super persons with various characteristics. I think it is misleading to use either of these words to refer to “nothing.” In supporting or undermining the hypothesis that a specific god exists, we must first define what kind of super person we are talking about. What features does he/she have?

  9. quen_tin says:

    Did my comment trigger the spam filter?
    I submitted it earlier than the last one published.

  10. quen_tin says:

    “Of course, no one is agnostic behaviorally. When we act in the world, we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God [...] agnosticism is an intellectual position [...] whereas atheism is a behavioral position”

    I am not so sure about this claim. This certainly does not concern every acts in life, but only some of them (religious practice, moral acts, intellectual discussions). So atheism is certainly not a very “visible” position, and even more so when atheists are not moral-nihilists and when believers are not churchgoers (which I think is very common, at least here in Europe). The behavioral distinction between an atheist and a believer can be very subtle, while distinguishing them as different intellectual positions is straightforward.

    Moreover, one can certainly act as if “there might be a God” (for example by being careful not to commit blasphemy, but never actually praying), which entails that agnostocism can as well be considered a behavioral position (subtlty) distinct from atheism or faith.

    The distinction between atheism and agnosticism as intellectual / behavioral positions appears to be very weak. Actually any intellectual position can be considered a behavioral one, as far as “engaging intellectual discussions” is considered a certain kind of behavior.

  11. noen says:

    This statement:

    “Atheism is “Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God.””

    is contradicted by this statement:

    “Weak atheism simply withholds belief in God for lack of evidence”

    Which is it? How does defining atheism as the denial of god *include* non denial?

    Theism is not science
    Atheism is not science
    Skepticism is not atheism

    Atheism is not the absence of belief, that is skepticism. Atheism is the presence of disbelief.

    The set of atheists does not include dogs or cats or new born babies.

    Atheism is the denial that “god exists” is true. It does not matter if that denial is based on a logical assertion or on a justified true belief given the preponderance of evidence.

    I am an agnostic. I do not wish to be associated with the utter filth that comes out of the mouths of prominent atheists like Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, et al. I reject the straw man version of Christianity or the racist version of Islam that many “Village Atheists” on the internet espouse.

    Therefore I do not know what the word “god” is supposed to mean. I doubt anyone does. I also do not have or claim to have absolute knowledge about the nature of the universe and so cannot exclude something that has given meaning to the lives of humans for 15,000 years.

    I do not think that religion is evil. I think that faith is one of humanity’s greatest gifts. As someone who has been homeless twice I owe my very life to faith based initiatives that fed me when no one else would and housed me when no one else would take me in. The building in which I live, the very room in which I sit right now, the food in my refrigerator. The clothes on my back. I owe all these to faith based institutions that follow the spirit, not the letter, not the atheists strawman, of the teachings of a a real historical man who lived 2000 years ago and who saw a better way of living.

    When I was on the street the atheists like Alan Greenspan were busy destroying the global economy. They are now trying, like Paul Ryan, to take away my home, my medical care and even my food. If push comes to shove I know who I would side with. It sure as hell wouldn’t be the likes of you.

    • itzac says:

      And who, exactly, is painting with too broad a brush. Also, Paul Ryan is Catholic, not an atheist. But I’m glad you found someone to feel superior to. Have a nice day.

      • noen says:

        I don’t believe that *any* devout Catholic could possibly idolize Ayn Rand. He’s positively evangelical and makes his staff read her books. There are no Catholics that would ever do that.

        He’s just pandering to the base. He, like all authoritarians, believes that he is the exception and that rules are for little people. Which fits in with Rand’s Nietzschean ethics of the overman.

      • Student says:

        What? So, you don’t believe that *Any* devout Catholi- No True Scotsman Fallacy. Your argument is invalid.

        And you don’t get to use him as an example Atheist if he identifies, and follows the practices of the Roman Catholics. That’s disingenous, a straw man (Seemingly your favourite fallacy to falsely identify, which I guess is due to you projecting), and putting words in his mouth. If you do that, then I can call Jesus a Prosletyzing Atheist, and say that no true Christian can be a Theist, and must reject Yaweh. Which would be crazy.

      • noen says:

        All I am saying is that I find it difficult to believe that Paul Allen is telling the truth for various reasons. The primary one being the utter conflict between Catholicism and Objectivism. Second is that as a Republican it is very likely he is merely pandering to his base. Third is that neo-cons and right wing extremists in general have as part of their philosophy (Strauss) that they don’t reject atheism but that religion is for the masses because they are weak. They consider themselves Nietzschean “free spirits” and so deceiving the cattle is ok because it’s for their own good.

        “I can call Jesus a Prosletyzing Atheist”

        Actually, the early Christians were called atheists because they didn’t believe in heaven or god or souls. The idea that there existed immaterial souls and that after life we went to a spiritual world only came later when Greek philosophy was brought in via Plato. They also lived in collectivist communes.

        So… the early Christians are your long lost atheist brothers!

      • klem says:

        Um, Ayn Rand was female.

      • Joe says:

        Um, read a little more carefully, klem. neon wasn’t in error, you are. neon wrote, “I don’t believe that ‘any’ devout Catholic could possibly idolize Ayn Rand. He’s (read: Ryan) positively evangelical and makes his (read: Ryan, again) staff read her (read: Rand) books.”

      • klem says:

        Ok yup I get it now.

    • Student says:

      It’s not a contradiction. A Weak Atheist with-holds belief, or disbelieves, as stated in the definition. Your reading skills are truly marvelous *sarcasm*.

      Atheism is generally categorized into two sets: Strong and Weak (This is not unique to Shermer).

      Strong Atheists Believe there is No God.
      Weak Atheists Do not Believe in any God.

      The difference is subtle, but there. Both disbelieve the premise of God or Gods, but Strong Atheists take the stance that a God, or Gods do not exist, while a Weak Atheist takes the position that God or Gods has not been shown to exist.

      So you could say that the Strong Atheist is sort of the Gnostic Atheist, and the Weak Atheist is the Agnostic Atheist.

      Atheist is simply the label that covers the lot, as they are not theistic.

      (Note: I am not the best at describing this. My definitions are loose, and not strict. My comparison of weak and agnostic, strong and gnostic is not defining, it is a comparison)

      Atheism is not science, but it is a scientifically valid position (RE: Null Hypothesis).

      If you say you’re agnostic, then you’re a fool. You may be agnostic, but that doesn’t change whether you think there’s a God or not. You can be Agnostic and believe (Like most Deists), or Gnostic and Disbelieve (Like Hawkins, Hitchens, or Harris).
      It’s not an answer to the question, it’s an intellectually invalid dodge. Likewise, if you’re going to slander people by saying their words are utter filth, you should mention what they say is filth, because from where I’m sitting, Dawkins is one of the most misunderstood public figures of our time, generally dismissed as hateful or rude, when that’s far from accurate.

      The “Straw Man” version of christianity is not what is being fought. Explain this straw man you’ve sighted. Generally, Atheists attack either Faith in general, or specific beliefs of people or organisations, THE OPPOSITE OF STRAW MEN. Same with Islam. That Morrocan girl forced to marry her rapist, the corrupted version of Islam preached by terrorist organisations: These are real, not straw men, and are a terrible thing. It’s not racist to think that Islam is flawed and amoral. There are Atheist people in the Arabic nations as well. An attack on faith is not an attack on people.

      You don’t know what God means? Look in a dictionary, or read up on any faith in particular.

      Faith is a terrible affliction on humanity. Faith gives us lies, betrayl, and Ponzi Schemes. Believing without evidence is no blessing, it is a curse.

      Faith based initiatives may have fed you. There also exist secular aid organisations, who have no interest in prosletyzation. That’s a Straw man of your own there: Dismissing all non-faith based charities. Your real man (I’m guessing you mean Jesus, and your belief in him giving a better way of living is truly amusing) felt it fitting to whip with shards of broken glass a group of bankers, simply because they operated in a temple. He also advocated submission to any and all aggression. He was a pretty pathetic philosophical figure, to be honest. Bhudda would be superior, or Laozi. The spirit of those teaching is nonsense. If you pick and choose, then you’re ignoring the spirit, and deciding for yourself, and the religion is just an intellectual box you’ve placed your thinking in, blinding you to alternatives. Also, coincidentally, that would be a more “Close minded” position.

      Atheists like Alan Greenspan destroy the economy? Did they do it in the name of atheism? “I’m an Atheist, so DIE MOTHERFUCKING POOR PEOPLE, Muahahahahahahahah”
      Are you nuts? By your logic, I could say Hitler, or Bush, as Christians, commited mass murder on a massive scale. But I’m not crazy. They didn’t do it because they’re religious. They did it because they’re bad people, and did not do it in the name of any particular, or by authority of, any particular religion (Not to dismiss any religious effect in their election, or their motivations, just that it was not the prime motivation). Learn why correlation does NOT equal causation, you’re a textbook case for logical fallacies.

      The people trying to take away your food may be atheist. The soldiers who fought for Hitler and Stalin may have been predominantly Christian. But don’t confuse their belief or lack thereof as motive for actions you fail to understand.

      You’re the one presenting straw men, and cherrypicking, and using unsupported ad-hominems to dismiss Dawkins etc, and a personal annecdote for why Religion is purely helpful, and fail, through an error in reading and comprehension to understand a simple statement of a COMMMONLY known definition.

      Clearly, you’re far more skeptical than the atheist who wrote the blog post *Sarcasm*.

      • noen says:

        “A Weak Atheist with-holds belief, or disbelieves, as stated in the definition.”

        Yes but I don’t accept your definition. I accept how J.J.C. Smart defines it in the SEP

        “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.”


        “The difference is subtle, but there. Both disbelieve the premise of God or Gods”

        That’s right. Atheism is not the lack of belief, it is the presence of active disbelief. Babies and animals cannot disbelieve in any premise because they cannot form the concept in the first place. Disbelief is the refusal to believe. Belief is mental content held as true. You cannot reject or deny a concept if you do not have a language in which to form one. Therefore atheism *cannot* be the mere lack of belief because that would include babies and animals. Which lack the necessary cognitive ability to *have* beliefs.

        “Strong Atheists take the stance that a God, or Gods do not exist, while a Weak Atheist takes the position that God or Gods has not been shown to exist.”

        That’s fine. I’ll grant you that if you insist. But both strong and weak atheists reject or deny the truth of the proposition that god. The former believe they have valid arguments against it. The latter that the proposition is unfalsifiable. But both reject it.

        I do not. Neither do I accept it. Which makes me an Agnostic or a skeptic, take your pick.

        “Atheism is not science, but it is a scientifically valid position (RE: Null Hypothesis).”

        No it isn’t. Atheism is an unfalsifiable belief which asserts a negative. Negative claims cannot be demonstrated as true. From wiki:

        “It is important to understand that the null hypothesis can never be proven. A set of data can only reject a null hypothesis or fail to reject it.”

        Which is fine when we are doing scientific experiments. But we are not doing science or conducting an experiment. We’re just talking. Please explain the experiment you think we are doing, what the evidence is and what you would consider dis-confirming of your claim that god does not exist.

        “Same with Islam. That Morrocan girl forced to marry her rapist, the corrupted version of Islam preached by terrorist organisations: These are real, not straw men, and are a terrible thing.”

        I agree that raping girls and forcing them to marry you and that terrorists using Islam to justify their crimes are bad things. But it is a fallacy to claim that they show Islam is an evil religion. The belief that your examples say something about Islam is the very definition of anti-religious bigotry and, indeed, is also racist.

        “Faith is a terrible affliction on humanity. Faith gives us lies, betrayl, and Ponzi Schemes. Believing without evidence is no blessing, it is a curse.”

        Were you planning to give an actual argument for your belief or do you think that if you just keep repeating a claim that makes it true?

        “There also exist secular aid organisations, who have no interest in prosletyzation.”

        Secular is not a synonym for atheist. The Post Office is a secular organization but I’m pretty sure it isn’t an atheist one. I thought you were supposed to be good at this thinkin’ stuff? Could you name an atheist homeless shelter or food shelf please?

        “Your real man (I’m guessing you mean Jesus, and your belief in him giving a better way of living is truly amusing) felt it fitting to whip with shards of broken glass a group of bankers”

        This is another one of those logical fallacies you’re so on about. The fact that someone did this one thing does not invalidate their general philosophy. People, even great men, and I think Jesus was both, are fallible and their faults do not necessarily refute their teachings.

        “Atheists like Alan Greenspan destroy the economy? Did they do it in the name of atheism?”

        Yes, he did. Specifically in the name of Randian economic beliefs. That doesn’t invalidate all atheists as you are correct to point out.

        “You’re the one presenting straw men, and cherrypicking, and using unsupported ad-hominems to dismiss Dawkins etc”

        I can support my claims about Dawkins, Harris, Hitchen as having destroyed the brand of atheism but this is getting over long. Briefly… Dawkins thinks he is literally genetically superior to religious folk, that it would be aceptable for the state to remove children from religious homes and that science should be purged of non atheists.

        Sam Harris thinks that torture is ok as long as we don’t have to listen to their screams and that some religious beliefs should be made illegal and their proponents imprisoned for their thought crimes.

        Hitchens was a pro torture neo-fascist warmonger who befriended a holocaust denier. His “talks” are little more than hate fill anti-religious diatribes with little actual content.

      • Bill Minuke says:

        Since you’re (both) arguing semantics, those parts of the argument where you don’t agree on meanings are futile.

        I do take exception with your (noen) “Randian economic” statement about atheists which is a “hasty generalization” fallacy. Right? Ayn Rand was an atheist… guilt by association. A similar tactic you’re using to discuss Sam Harris, etc. These outspoken people who have some ideas of merit, are not perfect and so you pull the guilt by association to push the imperfections of these people onto atheists. Quite poor reasoning and you know it since you made a similar defense regarding Jesus.

        Atheists share one characteristic “All God claims have failed to persuade us.” Everything else is your baggage.

    • Syd Foster says:

      I live in Britain, and we have a decent social security system so that people don’t need charity from religious people who might bring their “help” with propaganda, the way Mother Theresa used to withhold medicine to dying people in order to forcibly convert them on their deathbeds. It was socialists, not Christians, that fought the political battles to put that system in place.

      And again we see Dawkins being vilified, when in fact his writings and conversations have always been painfully polite. I doubt that you have read the God Delusion. If you have, I challenge you to quote the passage you find offensive. That would be a very instructive thing to see… because that would expose the fact that your offence has been taken, not given by Dawkins.

      And what’s racist about telling the truth about a murderous religion? If you were to convert to Islam, and then If you decide you don’t believe in Islam after all, the Koran says you should be killed! That’s sick.

    • JD says:

      Doesn’t it bother you that your belief was purchased with a loaf of bread?

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      The absence of a belief in God (where “God” is defined in a certain way by roughly 70% of believers)subsumes at least three positions: 1) the belief that God certainly does not exist, 2) the belief that God probably does not exist, and 3)can’t decide whether or not God exists.

      Faith is neither great nor a gift. Faith is belief untuned to the evidence, and is therefore a vice.

      People who have faith-based beliefs (including religious people) sometimes engage in helping behaviors and at other times engage in harmful behaviors. This does not change the fact that faith itself is a vice. The world would be better off without it. We can do better with belief tuned to the evidence. In a world without faith, you probably still would have be helped by someone.

  12. Phil says:

    Which deity? The one with the magic hammer? Elephant head with many arms? Invisible man in the sky? Each has its adherents. All can’t be right.

    • klem says:

      Or even that loser Klem who beleives an oat tree is his backyard is God. Lol!!…..Oh wait that’s me!

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        The word “God” refers to a hypothetical super person and cannot refer to an “oat” tree in anyone’s backyard. To have a good discussion we must use words in the commonplace way.

  13. Chad says:

    This article actually is pretty close to my own stance. I try to avoid the label thing, but if I’m pushed/have the time or inclination, I say I am a philosophical agnostic and a practical atheist, inasmuch as I am theoretically open to the idea of a divine other, if given sufficient evidence, but I live my life day to day as if there is no divine other.

    • noen says:

      Since when is the divine “other”? Oh, you mean childish fundamentalism that fetishizes Big Daddy?

      It’s so easy to knock down strawmen. They never counter your blows so you can go on living in a phantasy world and be the big man you’ve been denied in the real world.

      Debates about god are nothing more than the ritualized mating displays of young bucks in rut.

      • Chad says:

        ? I am confused? did I inadvertently say something combative? I just used that phrase as an inclusive term for “god.” I meant nothing antagonistic by it, and I am sorry if you took it that way.

      • noen says:

        The “divine other” is a strawman because that is merely one out of many many conceptions of “god” that people have. So… having set that up as “an inclusive term for god” when you knock it down you have not accomplished what you claim you have.

      • Chad says:

        But I made no argument. My original statement was tantamount to saying “I don’t like mustard.” I made no arguments about why the mustard is bad or even any explanations about why I don’t like the mustard. So I still don’t understand your combative tone. Would it have been more acceptable for me to use a different word for the idea of a god?

      • Student says:

        Seriously Noen. Learn to read. Chad, relax. He’s a nut. He takes offense at any assertion that there may not be a God, and dislikes those who profess disbelief in one.

      • Student says:

        He didn’t use a straw man, you irrational, unskeptical little man. He says divine other, as in supernatural deity, as in God, or Gods, or spirits. He doesn’t knock it down either, that’s a lie. He says he’s open to the idea, but does not accept it, as he does not feel he has proof. Which is rational, and Scientific, and he did not debate it.

        Come to mention it, you’re debating about God, and doing it badly, so does that mean your own insult about young bucks in rut applies to you too? I’m not going to conclude either way, just let it stand as it is: An ad-hominem attempting to justify a moral high ground.

        Also: An issue which affects politics, policy, laws and LIVES should be open to debate. If peoples religion affected only them, then you’d be right: Debating it would be pointless and pedantic. But it doesn’t, so debating it is vital. As long as people are killed in the name of religion, or restricted by faiths they do not hold, the debate matters.

        For someone who professes disbelief noen, you seem to have a lot of trouble understanding the same position in other people.

      • Chad says:

        Thank you, Student. I’m relatively new here, so I don’t yet know the different…uh…”personalities…” who inhabit these threads. It just took me aback being attacked when I made no attack.

      • noen says:

        “He says divine other, as in supernatural deity, as in God, or Gods, or spirits.”

        Since when is the divine other? Your cartoon version of god is just that, a flat two dimensional cartoon.

        “does that mean your own insult about young bucks in rut applies to you too?”

        Why is that an insult? Oh! You think your more than just a little monkey. You think you’re in charge of your life, that you have agency and your actions are rational. I agree.

        “An ad-hominem attempting to justify a moral high ground.”

        No, it’s just that, if you (in general, 3rd person) believe in the standard science geek picture of human nature common today then your stated reasons for doing xyz are not the real reasons.

        I don’t have trouble understanding other people. I just bristle when they try to shoehorn me into their club. I don’t want to be in the he-man religion haters club. The brand has been made toxic, even radioactive, by it’s supposed leaders. I want nothing to do with the so-called New atheism of today. To that end I have to carve out a space between the two extremes where I can live.

      • Tony Castleberry says:

        This “new atheism of today” thing is itself a straw man. The only difference between the atheists of today and the atheists of years past is that the rest of the world has finally caught up with us and buys our books. With upwards of 20% of the U.S. population now defining themselves as either “atheist” or at least “non-religious”,we can no longer be ignored by the media and the shock theists feel when they hear an atheist on TV making a rational case that their ‘God’ does not exist is what leads them to think there is something “new” about atheism of today. What Dawkins and Hitchens say/said is not substantially any different than what Isaac Asimov, Bertrand Russel etc. said years ago.

      • noen says:

        Hi Tony.
        “This “new atheism of today” thing is itself a straw man.”

        Then you don’t really understand the concept of a strawman argument.

        “With upwards of 20% of the U.S. population now defining themselves as either “atheist” or at least “non-religious””

        FALSE – “A 2004 BBC poll showed the number of people in the US who don’t believe in a god to be about 9%. A 2008 Gallup poll showed that a smaller 6% of the US population believed that no god or universal spirit exists”

        And no I don’t agree that “shock” explains the label of New Atheist. I think it more likely it’s the aggression, the snobbery, the condescension and the all around dickishness that people rightly perceive as new.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Being open to a possibility is just not the same thing as having a particular belief. I am open to the possibility that God exists, but I strongly believe that God very probably or almost certainly does not exist.

      In one sense of “agnostic” I am one since I do not have knowledge that God exists or that he does not. (In this sense aren’t we all agnostics?) But in another sense of “agnostic” (the sense which seems more popular in today’s world) I am not an agnostic since I am not undecided about the question of God’s existence. I have a strong, and I think very well founded, belief about this.

  14. quen_tin says:

    “Of course, no one is agnostic behaviorally. When we act in the world, we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God [...] agnosticism is an intellectual position [...] whereas atheism is a behavioral position”

    I am not so sure about this claim. First it does not concern every acts in life, but only the few of them that couls be related with God (religious practice, moral acts, intellectual discussions). So atheism is certainly not a very “visible” position, and even more so when atheists are not moral-nihilists and when believers are not churchgoers (I think both are very common, at least here in Europe). The behavioral distinction between an atheist and a believer can be very subtle, while distinguishing them as different intellectual positions is straightforward.

    Moreover, one can certainly act as if “there might be a God” (for example by being careful not to commit desecration, but never actually praying God), which entails that agnostocism can as well be considered a behavioral position (subtlty) distinct from atheism or faith.

    The distinction between atheism and agnosticism as intellectual/behavioral positions thus appears to be very weak. Actually any intellectual position can be considered a behavioral one, as far as “engaging intellectual discussions” is considered a certain kind of behavior.

    • Chad says:

      “So atheism is certainly not a very “visible” position, and even more so when atheists are not moral-nihilists and when believers are not churchgoers”

      In my experience, you are absolutely right.

    • Student says:

      An interesting point. Just a note: I think your problem with the multiple posts might be due to the site’s delay on new posters, it doesn’t put the post up for a while. Not sure if that’s it, just a guess.

  15. quen_tin says:

    Sorry for the flood

  16. miller says:

    I think a lot of times, the use of agnosticism vs atheism has to do with how one wishes to pose oneself. Some people identify themselves as agnostics because they would like to pose themselves as more open-minded than Dawkins et al. Shermer, who plays a public representative of skepticism would rather avoid the labels, as they are distracting.

    I identify as atheist, because I wish to pose myself as one of those nasty people you’ve always heard about, except that the image is plainly wrong in my case.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      I think Dawkins and the other big name atheists are viewed in a negative light mainly because they are assertive and bold in speaking their conclusions, and most people just don’t agree with them. Consequently, these men (they are mostly men) are often labeled “fundamentalist, dogmatic, arrogant, militant” etc. I think these characterizations miss the mark and are simply ad hominem attacks.

      I have never heard Dawkins or the others ever advocate physically hurting religious believers, and yet some religious believers not only advocate physically hurting atheists, but actually have done so throughout history.

      • noen says:

        I don’t think that is true. I think when people discover what Dawkins and other prominent atheists believe they recoil in disgust. Dawkins thinks it would be fine for the state to remove children from religious homes because teaching one’s child one’s religion is child abuse. Sam Harris advocated for torture and for removing the free speech rights of people based on religion. Hitchens was also pro torture, pro war, a misogynist and a friend to a Holocaust denier.

        The New Atheist movement of the 90’s and 00’s did profound damage to intellectual atheism by aligning themselves with the neoconservative, proto-fascist, war mongering extreme right. I don’t think it can be saved in the public eye. That is why I advocate for skepticism and agnosticism. Because atheism has been made radioactive.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        I know that Dawkins has said that indoctrinating children with a particular religion is a form of child abuse (and I think he is right), but I don’t think he has said that it would be fine for the state to remove the children from their homes. If you think otherwise, then please provide the specific reference for your claim.

        No, Harris has not advocated for torture and prohibition of free speech based on religion. If you think otherwise, then please provide a specific reference for your claim.

        Hitchens was neither pro-torture nor a misogynist. He supported a specific war – the second Iraq war. I don’t know if he had a friend who is a Holocaust denier, but he was not a Holocaust denier. When you make very strong charges against people, you should be prepared to back them up with concrete evidence.

        The New Atheist movement of the 90s and 00s did not align with the neoconservative, proto-facist, war-mongering, extreme right. If you think so, then provide some concrete evidence to support your claim. Sounds like hyperbole to me.

        Agnosticism, in the sense that you don’t know, is a respectable position. But agnosticism, in the sense that you can’t decide whether or not God probably exists, is not a respectable position. You should be an atheist and conclude that God very probably does not exist.

      • noen says:

        Re: Dawkins “I don’t think he has said that it would be fine for the state to remove the children from their homes.”

        He signed a petition to make teaching one’s religon to your children

        Dawkins and the Religion Petition

        We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Make it illegal to indoctrinate or define children by religion before the age of 16.

        In order to encourage free thinking, children should not be subjected to any regular religious teaching or be allowed to be defined as belonging to a particular religious group based on the views of their parents or guardians.

        Ed Brayton: “This proposal is every bit as noxious and totalitarian as a proposal from Christian reconstructionists that those who teach their children about witchcraft or atheism should be thrown in jail would be. Just imagine what you would have to do to actually enforce such a law. No one could take their children to church, which means you’d have to literally police the churches to make sure no children went in. Nor could they teach their children about religion at home, read the Bible with them, say prayers with them before they go to bed. The only way to enforce such a law would be to create a society that would make Orwell’s 1984 seem optimistic by comparison.”

        Re: Sam Harris “No, Harris has not advocated for torture and prohibition of free speech based on religion.”

        FALSE. In fact, he even wrote an article with the title “In Defense of Torture”

        “I will now present an argument for the use of torture in rare circumstances. While many people have objected, on emotional grounds, to my defense of torture, no one has pointed out a flaw in my argument.”

        Sam Harris’s attack on free speech: “Madeleine Bunting quotes Harris in saying “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them,” and states this “sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition.””

        Re: Christopher Hitchens “Hitchens was neither pro-torture nor a misogynist.”

        Hitchens supported waterboarding, which is torture, until he experienced it himself. when he reversed his position. Surprisingly, the non drink-sodden former Trotskyist poppinjays of the world did not need to experience torture to know it is wrong.

        “Why are men, taken on average and as a whole, funnier than women? Well, for one thing, they had damn well better be. The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh. …”

        Reducing all members of a class to gross sexual sterotypes, even when masked by the just-so-stories of Evolutionary Psych, is misogyny.

        Hitchens and his Holocaust denying friend David Irving
        Dance, Hitchens, Dance

        Max Blumenthal speaking to Hitchens: “A year later, in your Vanity Fair article, “Hitler’s Ghost,” (which Irving has posted on his website) you argued that Irving’s books deserve to be published in America, described criticism of Irving as “hysterical and old-maidish,” and declared, “David Irving is not just a Fascist historian, he is also a great historian of Fascism.” Nevermind all the lies contained in Irving’s biography of Goebbels.”

        Christopher Hitchens didn’t merely advocate for Irving on free speech grounds. He gave his arguemnts support as Max’s article shows.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        This is a reply to noen’s response to me made on April 22, 2012 at 2:43 pm.

        Regarding Dawkins, I don’t see anything in the petition which required the removal of children from their homes where they were being indoctrinated into religion. Therefore, your first claim against Dawkins is not supported by the evidence you presented.

        Regarding Harris, I don’t see anything there in which Harris advocates torture specifically for religious beliefs. So, your second claim against Harris is not supported by the evidence you presented.

        Regarding Hitchens, you simply claim that Hitchens supported water boarding, but you provide no reference for this. You even admit that if he ever did support water boarding, he changed his mind.

        Also regarding Hitchens, he did not “reduce all members of a class” as you suggest. Rather he spoke “on average.” And so your claim that he was misogynist is unsupported.

        Finally, in regard to Hitchens, there is nothing in the quotes to justify your claim that Irving, a Holocaust Denier, was Hitchens’ friend. It does sound like Hitch thought Irving’s writings should have greater circulation. So what? We should simply dispute Irving when he makes false claims.

        None of the evidence you have presented provides any support for any of the claims you made about Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Care to try again?

      • noen says:

        “Care to try again?”


        “I don’t see anything in the petition which required the removal of children from their homes where they were being indoctrinated into religion.”

        From my comment which I guess you must have missed:

        “Just imagine what you would have to do to actually enforce such a law. No one could take their children to church, which means you’d have to literally police the churches to make sure no children went in. Nor could they teach their children about religion at home, read the Bible with them, say prayers with them before they go to bed. The only way to enforce such a law would be to create a society that would make Orwell’s 1984 seem optimistic by comparison.”

        “I don’t see anything there in which Harris advocates torture specifically for religious beliefs.”

        That is true. He supports torture in general regardless of one’s religion.

        “Regarding Hitchens, you simply claim that Hitchens supported water boarding, but you provide no reference for this.”

        Have you been living under a rock? Hitchens’ claim to fame was his denial that waterboarding is torture and he wrote a very widely published article in Vanity Fair relating his experience when he finally submitted to waterboarding and conversion to consenting that it is indeed torture. I fault him for being unable to discern what is torture unless he is subjected to it. It says something about his character.

        “Rather he spoke “on average.” And so your claim that he was misogynist is unsupported.”

        His article “Why women are not funny”, also from Vanity Fair, does reveal his misogyny. Read it. It’s nothing more than a bunch of Evolutionary Psych BS.

        “It does sound like Hitch thought Irving’s writings should have greater circulation. So what? We should simply dispute Irving when he makes false claims.”

        Holocaust denial is hate speech. While hate speech should not suffer prior governmental restraint neither should it be given wide credence. People who engage in or support hate speech should be denounced and suffer social condemnation. Hitchins did not merely think Irving should enjoy wider publication. He thought he made some good points as the article by Max Blumenthal shows.

        “None of the evidence you have presented provides any support for any of the claims you made”

        I think they do. My point is not that I can disprove atheism. It is that prominent leaders of the New Atheist movement have made being an atheist radioactive, a social pariah. My solution is to take a knife and carve out a space where I can live. That is why I call myself an agnostic and a skeptic and I make pains to delineate myself from atheism in general.

        I love Brian Dunning’s pod casts and the “Skeptics Guide to the Universe” podcasts. I love science and I believe it gives us true facts, justified true belief about the world. But atheism is NOT science.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        This is a response to noen’s response to me of April 23, 2012 at 11:56 am.

        So, your original claim about Harris was mistaken. Specifically, you said “Sam Harris advocated for torture and for removing the free speech rights of people based on religion.” What is so good about internet debates is that we can easily go back to read what people actually said. I read Harris’ book “The End of Faith,” and if my recollection is correct, he advocated torture in very limited circumstances which he specified.

        Regarding your claim about Hitchens and torture, no, I have not been living under a rock. If you are going to make negative claims about a person (especially one who is now dead), then you should be prepared to support those claims with some specific evidence. If there is a Vanity Fair article in which Hitchens advocated water boarding before he was subjected to it, then please give the citation and the relevant quote from that source. But if he did advocate water boarding under some circumstances or if he did not classify it as torture (even if he changed his mind about it), and if you disagreed with him, that’s fine. I’d probably disagree with him also, but I would not cross him off my list of persons to be admired. He did much to advance the cause of atheism.

        Your comment about my living under a rock is impudent and unnecessary. On any point, if you think that I don’t have the same knowledge or information which you have, which would lead me to a different position, then you have an obligation to present it without condescension.

        Regarding Hitchens and misogyny, still, your claim is not supported by the evidence you presented. Again, if there is a Vanity Fair article in which Hitchens makes statements which you regard to be misogynist, then you have a responsibility to provide the citation and quotes from that article to support your claim. Also, evolutionary psychology is not BS, although a discussion of that issue would take us too far afield.

        You have provided no evidence that Hitchens gave Holocaust denial any credence. If you have actual quotes from Hitchens to support your claim, then please present those quotes and a citation of the source. Otherwise, your claim has no credibility.

        If you think that you’ve provided any support for any of the specific claims you made about Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, then you’d be wrong. Please don’t make claims about people which are false or which are unsupported by evidence. The atheist movement was radioactive before Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens came on the scene. I think they have made it less radioactive, not more. Many of the claims made about these men appear to be false. As I said, many believers don’t like these men (also include Dennett) because they are assertive and bold. You should add atheism to your agnosticism and skepticism. If you think about it for awhile and think rationally, that is exactly what you will do. In the modern world, agnosticism (defined in the “can’t decide” way) is not reasonable.

        Atheism is not science, but it partly follows from science. Science supports atheism more than it supports theism.

  17. Jason says:

    I think Luke Prog had the most compelling argument for the distinction of these words I’ve seen yet, in his now defunct blog “common sense atheism”:

    ‘Theism’ and ‘atheism’ are about belief. ‘Gnosticism’ and ‘agnosticism’ are about knowledge. If you believe God exists and think you know it, you’re a gnostic theist. If you believe God exists but you don’t really know, you’re an agnostic theist. If you don’t believe in gods but you’re not sure, you’re an agnostic atheist. If you don’t believe gods exist and you’re pretty sure about that, you’re a gnostic atheist.

    A lot of people also use the word ‘agnostic’ to refer to someone who is so unsure about the existence of gods that he doesn’t have beliefs either way. Some philosophers use the word ‘agnostic’ to refer to someone who thinks we can’t know whether or not gods exist. Nobody owns the meaning of words, so we just have to be careful that we’re clear what we mean when we use ambiguous words.

    • noen says:

      “‘Theism’ and ‘atheism’ are about belief. ‘Gnosticism’ and ‘agnosticism’ are about knowledge.”

      What does “inflammable” mean? Does it mean the opposite of “flammable”? How would one go about finding out what it means? Does inspecting the prefix “in” help us to discover what it means?

      Words mean whatever people say they do and the way we discover their meaning is by seeing how people use them. Even worse, the very same word can have completely contradictory meanings depending on it’s context.

      “Atheist” is the peg on which people hang a broad number of people, mostly those who say they are or who specifically reject religious teachings. Cats and dogs and babies are not atheists because they cannot understand the concepts. Buddhists are not atheists because theirs is a religion with a godhead even if it isn’t exactly like the Western concept.

      In some languages “god” is a verb, not a noun. How can one be an atheist if your language cannot even form the concept of atheism? Atheism is culturally determined. It arises out of a response to a very specific kind of god. It is also about 16 year old boys trying to work out their unresolved Oedipal conflicts. Just kill dad and hop into bed with mummy already, ok?

      • Student says:

        It’s logical Fallacy man, back to ruin everyones day with his disingenuous assertions.

        We’re not talking about other languages. We’re talking about this one, and defining and describing things in english. You’re moving the Goalpost instead of making an argument. Cats and Dogs and Babies ARE atheists: Because they do not believe in (I assume they do not believe, due to a lower self awareness, but I could be mistaken), a God. They’re not political atheists or anything, but they still disbelieve. Having no concept of God is an Atheist position, in fact, the position of not accepting another persons conception of God is based upon not accepting something which they feel is unknown (Agnostic Atheism).

        Many civilisations before Christ believed in a female deity, “Mother Earth” and such. Why do you assume God is male? Many pantheons had powerful female Gods. Are you only considering Abrahmic beliefs? That would indicate some very interesting things about your thought process. More to the point, there are male and female (So your Oedipal idea is wrong) Atheists, and rejecting God doesn’t make it an emotional attack on a parental figure, we don’t believe that figure exists. How much more simple can it get? Also, it’s an ad-hominem.

        You must be the least skeptical person I’ve seen posting here. Whether you believe or not, at least have the integrity to avoid using logical fallacies to justify your position against straw men (Also, you shouldn’t need fallacious logic to attack your own straw men: You should work on that).

      • noen says:

        “We’re not talking about other languages.”

        Perhaps that was not the best example. Would atheism exist in a society that had no concept of god? I suspect that you’d say it does, I say it would not. The reason why is because atheism names a particular social group who only exist in their opposition to religion. A black line can only exist if it is contrasted by white. If it is surrounded by more black lines it ceases to exist.

        “Cats and Dogs and Babies ARE atheists: Because they do not believe in … a God.”

        Babies and animals are not atheists because in order to be an atheist you have to believe you are an atheist. Atheism cannot be a lack because absence is not itself a thing. You have not defined an orange by saying it is not an apple. You have to say what it is. Atheism is the denial of the existence of god and in this the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy agrees with me. The Encyclopedia Britannica also does not accept that atheism is the lack of belief. I take them as authoritative.

        You may disagree with me but simply repeating your assertion is not arguing. I have given reasons why I make the claims I do.

        “Having no concept of God is an Atheist position, in fact, the position of not accepting another persons conception of God is based upon not accepting something which they feel is unknown”

        Do you not see that you have just contradicted yourself? Not accepting another’s claim is not the same as not having a concept. It is very much having the concept that one does not accept their claim. Babies and animals cannot form that concept and therefore cannot be atheists.

        “Why do you assume God is male?”

        I don’t even assume that god is a noun. I have no idea what people mean when they use that word. There are coherent definitions out there but I think they are all either very contrived or culturally bound. Something that is culturally bound is not a good candidate for a god.

        “More to the point, there are male and female (So your Oedipal idea is wrong) Atheists”

        The classic Oedipal complex is fairly defunct now. What is perhaps better is to understand that adolescents struggle to define themselves in relation to power and authority so, if you want to joust with the biggest windmills around, as part of one’s tribal ritual in becoming a man, what better counter can you choose than the ruler of the universe?

        “rejecting God doesn’t make it an emotional attack on a parental figure, we don’t believe that figure exists”

        Really? Then why do you struggle so against it? The truth is that god fills your (atheists in general) thoughts almost every day. There are countless blogs and Usenet threads and YouTube videos where atheists engage in endless debates on the nature of god. Thousands, perhaps millions of man hours have been lovingly devoted to discussing, debating and arguing on the nature of god and various scared texts by people who call themselves atheists.

        Face it, you’re theologians engaged in a schismatic dispute with other theologians. You’re a priest.

        “Also, it’s an ad-hominem.”

        No it isn’t. An ad hom is when you say an argument is false because of the person’s bad character. I said that I don’t think the commonly stated reasons for being an atheist are the operative reasons. I said nothing about the claim being true or false for that reason.

        “You must be the least skeptical person I’ve seen posting here.”

        I’m sure you’ll be surprised to learn I don’t think I am. Just as I don’t think I’ve used fallacious reasoning. I’m open to being corrected, if you can, just be aware that simply restating your claim louder or cursing does not constitute arguing.

      • Tony Castleberry says:

        “Would atheism exist in a society that had no concept of god? I suspect that you’d say it does, I say it would not.” – Noen

        That is where you are probably wrong. We do not live in a world where no God-concepts exist for people to peruse. So that question is irrelevant. What you are doing here is akin to saying that non-athletes cannot exist in this world because in a world where no sports exist the term would be nonsensical.

        “Babies and animals are not atheists because in order to be an atheist you have to believe you are an atheist.” – Noen

        False. The ONLY requirement for atheism is lack of belief in God or gods. The terms “belief”, “God” and “gods”, as well as “atheism” and “theism” all change with context, usage, speaker and audience. Babies and animals lack belief in God and so are by definition ‘weak atheists’. You are reading too much into the definitions of atheism here.

        “You have not defined an orange by saying it is not an apple.” – Noen

        False analogy(another logical fallacy). Oranges and apples are things known to exist and no sane person has any grounds to think they do not exist. “God” is an entirely different beast.

        “Really? Then why do you struggle so against it? The truth is that god fills your (atheists in general) thoughts almost every day. There are countless blogs…” – Noen

        Wow. The ‘You cannot be a non-believer because you are talking about the matter rather than ignoring it altogether!’ argument? Nonsense. If the majority of the earth’s people believe in the Tooth Fairy or or genies, but these things do not seem to exist and I can see no evidence to the contrary, what does that make me? It makes me a non-believer in these popular beliefs. If those believers then pester me day and night to join them in believing in the Tooth Fairy and I have to spend hours every day explaining why I can not believe such then am I not still an unbeliever? How does my being effectively forced to answer an unsubstantiated existential claim make ME wrong here?


      • noen says:

        @ Tony Castleberry

        “We do not live in a world where no God-concepts exist for people to peruse. So that question is irrelevant.”

        You have not refuted my counter factual by inventing a completely different one for you to then knock down. You need to address it with at least a modicum of intellectual integrity. Atheism would cease to exist in a society without religion just as race would cease to exist in a society with no ethnic differences. It is not a counter to then claim that it is impossible to eliminate all ethnic differences. That very much meets the definition of a strawman.

        “False. The ONLY requirement for atheism is lack of belief in God or gods.”

        Saying things doesn’t make them so. I have patiently given *reasons* for my position. All you have done is to bray loudly that it isn’t so but you have FAILED to give me any reasons whatsoever why I should accept your assertions.

        “False analogy(another logical fallacy). Oranges and apples are things known to exist and no sane person has any grounds to think they do not exist. “God” is an entirely different beast.”

        I wasn’t talking about god. I was referring to atheism. Which I am quite confident *does* exist. My assertion is that defining atheism as a lack of a thing is insufficient to tell us what it actually is. And what is it that all atheists share in common? They deny that god exists. Some say they can know this is true, others that they feel it is a justified belief, but they ALL reject the claim that “god exists” is true. I do not. Which makes me an agnostic.

        Your move.

        “Wow. The ‘You cannot be a non-believer because you are talking about the matter rather than ignoring it altogether!’ argument?”

        I did not say that one cannot be an atheist and still discuss religion. I just think it suspicious. Thou dost protest too much.

      • Another point of view says:

        All the discussion about atheists is rather silly. I was raised as a Catholic. As I matured I started to doubt my religion and considered myself Agnostic because I wanted to hedge my bets. After a while I decided that that was a hypocritical stance because there was no compelling reason to believe in a god or gods in general. I used the term Atheist only as a way to say I no longer believed in the myths I grew up with. Sort of like Santa Claus.

      • klem says:

        I think it was Émile Cammaert who once said
        “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything”

      • rusyazik says:

        “In some languages “god” is a verb, not a noun.”

        May I ask in what languages “god” is a verb and not a noun?

        While the concepts of noun and verb vary significantly between various languages there is no major language family I know of where this statement would be considered true. I did search on the web and found a defunct web site that seems to have made this claim for some native american languages. I personally would need more evidence than a claim made on a defunct web site. And I would suggest that it weakens your arguments if they are built on unsubstantiated claims or “urban legends”. If you don’t know the languages in question well or have studied work by people that do … well, you would just be spewing nonsense.

      • noen says:

        “May I ask in what languages “god” is a verb and not a noun?”

        In Mi’kmaq and a few other non-european languages. Trees are also verbs and time is circular not linear for them. The idea is hardly new and the quote is from R Buckminster Fuller.

        The point is to suggest that we don’t know jack squat.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      I mostly agree with you. However, thinking you know is not the same thing as knowing itself. So, if “agnostic” means “without knowledge,” then it seems to me that we are all agnostic about the existence of God.

      Yes, nobody owns the meaning of words, but some words do have a consensus meaning, and in discussions like these I think we need to use the consensus meanings. At the present time “agnostic” probably doesn’t have a consensus meaning, but “God” does. And “God” does not refer to “nothing” or a “tree” as some on this blog have suggested. It refers to a hypothetical super person with certain extraordinary features.

  18. Max says:

    An atheist is an agnostic who employs Occam’s razor.
    An agnostic says that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God, and an atheist says that this makes God’s existence an unnecessary assumption.

    • tmac57 says:

      I think an agnostic could still leave open the ‘possibility’ that there could be evidence found for God. I sort of lean that way.I think that it is highly unlikely however.

    • klem says:

      Occams Razor is unecessary once you redefine God to your liking, like my oat tree in the backyard.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      God still might exist even if people are making an unnecessary assumption. Either God exists or he does not. There is a truth about the matter. None of us now knows the truth, but this does not stop us from having beliefs about God’s existence. I think the best way to distinguish these beliefs is to ask “In your opinion what is the probability (on a scale of 0 to 100)that God exists (where “God” is defined in the common way)? For me that probability is X where 0<X<1. I think an atheist is really anyone on the scale from 0 to 49, an agnostic is anyone on the scale at 50, and a theist is anyone on the scale from 51 to 100.

  19. Chad says:

    I will oftentimes identify myself as “atheist” as opposed to “an atheist,” but I think the distinction is usually lost on people.

    • Chris says:

      Hi Chad, I like that distinction a lot. I’ve been sitting here trying to decide how I actually do think of my atheism.

      I didn’t grow up in a religious family, so up until my mid-teens, I think the perfect term was “a-theist,” by which I mean simply “the absence of theistic ideas.” At the age of 12, for instance, I just assumed that all that weird god and heaven stuff that other people sometimes talked about was all made up, and added it to the list after tooth fairy, et al., to the extent that I ever thought about it. (Though I did pray fervently for the safe return of a missing cat that we subsequently found smushed under a parked car.)

      Then around 15, I was “born again” and began believing a lot of spoon-fed fundamentalism. At that point, I identified as a “believer.”

      Over the last 35 years since then, I fell away from the faith, and I have called myself either gnostic or agnostic, depending mostly on whim.

      But a year or two ago, I made a very clear and deliberate decision not to waffle any longer and declared an active belief that god *doe not* exist, which I guess we’re here calling “strong atheism.”

      And if I understand your distinction, I am now “an atheist.”

  20. Retired Prof says:

    This discussion falls under the definition of philosophy as “A game in which persons with large vocabularies dither over the definitions of abstract nouns.”

  21. A.K. Bean says:

    I am *always* surprised when people have never heard of the Malagueña. It’s beautiful. That song, select Rachmaninov, Granados’ Spanish Dances and Chopin’s the Winter Wind are among my favorite pieces.

    Actually, the only thing I can play on any instrument(Piano specifically) are the first five or so bars of the Malagueña. I tried to get my boyfriend in high school (decades ago) to learn it by stealthily procuring him some sheet music. I don’t think he appreciated the gesture.

    I certainly find it frustrating that people like to define things in the extreme of any stereotype. Have you watched Penn’s recent rant labeled “An Atheist Guide to 2012 elections?” He goes over some stereotype label issues.

  22. shawmutt says:

    Agnostics: Atheist hipsters.

    “I’m not going to give myself a silly label, I’m just going to give myself a silly label.”

  23. WML says:

    What do you mean you can’t prove a negative? Haven’t we proven that the earth is NOT flat and that it is NOT the center of the solar system? How much more negative can you get than that?

    Placing the burden of proof on the claimant is fine. But that doesn’t mean you can’t prove (in the sense of accumulating very persuasive evidence for a proposition) a negative. Science frequently proves negatives. There isn’t anything special about negatives versus positives.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      I tend to agree with you on this point. If we cannot prove or disprove, then we can still support or undermine.

      While growing up, when I questioned the existence of God, I was told “You can’t prove God doesn’t exist.” At the time I was mute and didn’t have a good answer. But now I would say one of these: “I don’t need to prove God doesn’t exist in order to believe he does not.” or “Maybe I can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but I can give very good evidence, reasons, and arguments why he very probably does not. So, I can undermine the claim that he exists.”

      • noen says:

        “If we cannot prove or disprove, then we can still support or undermine.”

        That’s pragmatism, not proof. Having good reasons to believe that something does not exist is not the same as proving it does not exist.

        “I don’t need to prove God doesn’t exist in order to believe he does not.”

        Irrelevant. You can believe *anything* without having to prove it either does or doesn’t exist. I fail to see how having faith that god does not exist is an improvement over having faith that god does exist.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        We don’t need proof or disproof. As others have shown in this discussion, these ideas are more appropriate to mathematics and symbolic logic.

        You said “I fail to see how having faith that god does not exist is an improvement over having faith that god does exist.” That’s a straw man. Faith is not an improvement over faith, but reason is.

  24. Scott the Aussie says:

    Naturalist. That will do for me – “atheist” doesn’t cover all the things I have not seen a damn bit of evidence for. “a-fairyist or a-leprechaunist??”” Unicorns???

    • Student says:

      Good point. I hadn’t considered that. I might consider myself more of a Methodological Naturalist though.

    • Pink Freud says:

      I used to refer to myself as a Naturist (one who agrees with the tenets of Naturalism) to avoid giving Theists the opportunity to name the playing field (thus defining myself by a negative: a=not (the alpha privitive in Greek) theist ), and to avoid the term Naturalist, which to most people indicates someone who studies nature. I was quite pleased with my clever label, until I realized it most commonly means nudist. So now I am just stripped of an identity.

  25. Mike G says:

    The best answer to this question that I’ve hear yet:
    Atheist and agnostic are answers to two separate questions.
    Is there a god? I don’t know, I’m agnostic.
    Do you believe in god? No, I’m an atheist.

  26. Simon says:

    Surely all agnostics are atheists so this debate is redundant. If you don’t know then, by definition, you don’t believe.

  27. Wesley Kerfoot says:

    “Theological non-cognitivist” is how I would best describe myself. It’s a subset of agnosticism. Basically it means this: religious people talk about how “God” is completely outside the universe (created it), therefore it’s not possible to observe “God” in nature (unfalsifiable and unverifiable). Religious people will also bring up “miracles” however, which are this “God” thing interacting with…the physical universe.

    This is quite clearly a paradox. Paradoxes aren’t meaningful, therefore the idea of “God” is not meaningful.

    You can also take a point of view which basically says: I can’t picture God, or any of the direct observable results that might come from God, so what the heck is God supposed to be? It doesn’t sound like I can know what such a thing is without a better definition first. Religious people give definitions like “the trinity”, “love”, “the creator”, “omega”, “all of nature” which each have their own problems.

    “the trinity” – Contradictory definition that doesn’t say anything. How can you have three things that are really one thing? Another paradox, and thus meaningless.

    “love” – This has so many different definitions, and many which are contradictory. You might think “love” is what you feel when you hug your spouse, but another person might think love is watching their favourite film. Not a clear definition of God at all.

    “the creator” – As Michael often points out, if there was a creator, then who created the creator? This isn’t a good definition either because it leads to infinite regression. At least we can reduce physical objects to subatomic particles, we can’t do the same for concepts like “the creator”. So we can’t possible use such a definition in finding out whether God exists or not.

    “omega” – This is really the only one that makes any sense, since we *can* know about the beginning of the universe, but if creationists realized what they meant when they said “God” was the beginning of the universe, then they would probably stop using that definition. In other words, no creationist would agree that all they meant when they referred to God was the beginning of the universe.

    “all of nature” – This has the same problems as omega. If all creationists meant when they talked about God was the totality of nature, then they would be saying God = nature, which they obviously don’t because they say God has self consciousness and free will.

    Now look at all of the other conceptions of God that exist which are clearly different, and tell me again how the word “God” is meaningful. When you think of a normal, meaningful word like “House” there is a much smaller amount of room for deviation in definitions, whereas there is a much larger room for interpretation when talking about the word God.

    That is basically my argument for why I consider myself a “non-cognitivist”. I don’t think we can ever know anything about God simply because God doesn’t refer to anything that could possibly be known, or it refers to everything that could possibly known — either way the whole thing is absurd.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      I am an atheist, and partly agree and disagree with you.

      Most religious people do not believe that God is completely outside our universe. They believe he created our universe and intervenes in it on a fairly regular basis. To the extent that God is thought to intervene we can study his alleged interventions through science (e.g. look at the scientific studies on intercessory prayer.)

      Yes, the trinity is a contradiction because the word “God” is used to refer to one person and a team of three persons at the same time. I agree with your comments on God as love, omega, or all of nature.

      On the other hand, the definition of God may include (and usually does) something like “the everlasting person who created everything other than himself. I don’t think the infinite regress argument applies to this particular hypothetical god, although there are other good arguments against God, as traditionally defined.

      Just because there are many definitions of “God” doesn’t mean that the term “God” is meaningless. I think most of the terms are meaningful; we can comprehend them. Of course, this implies nothing about the probability of existence of those things to which the terms refer.

  28. ArtnerC says:

    Thanks for this. I love NDT but his video on BigThink worried me when he decried labels for being ways to judge people unfairly (which I agree with you both on) but then he appeared to make somewhat unfair declarations based on the “atheist” label, and why he didn’t think it fit him.

  29. Matthew says:

    Dr. Shermer,
    I am perplexed as to the continuous false assertion that one “cannot prove a negative.” This is simply not the case in logic and reasoning. If one were to purport the existence of thing K and leave it at that, then I agree. There is not enough information included in K to accept or reject it’s existence. If, however, one were to discover that K was supposed to hold two properties, P and ~P, then we know by the law of non-contradiction that K cannot exist.

    If K was supposed to be a “square circle” or “married bachelor” then I don’t believe any reasonable person would hold an agnostic position towards K.

    Of course, in discussion, the arguments often fall apart at this point, because the God that one wants to prove the existence of or non-existence of varies from person to person. Or, rather, their claimed properties of that God vary from person to person. However simple claims like “all just” and “all merciful” are simple contradictions. “Just” can only be taken to mean “administering that punishment which is due,” while “mercy” is used to mean administering less punishment than is due” -a simple case of P and ~P.

    There are other types of contradictions as well, including single property contradictions where the purported property contradicts with the world. (ie, the problem of evil)

    I wanted to key in on that specifically because without that understanding we would be forced to remain agnostic in method and in practice of things that are quite clearly proved to not exist. We can and do, in fact, prove a negative, and we do it quite often.

    Thank you.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Outstanding post! Don’t we “prove” negative assertions all the time?

      For example:
      Somebody stabbed and killed Jane Doe.
      Anybody who stabbed and killed Jane Doe had to be at location X at time Y.
      John Jones was at location Z, 50 miles from location X, at time Y.
      Therefore, John Jones did not stab and kill Jane Doe.

      The conclusion is a negative assertion. In the same way, we can use the most common definition of “God,” then make predictions from this definition (what should be true or observed in this world if God exists), and then show that these predictions are false. If not proving the negative assertion “God does not exist,” this method certainly strongly supports the assertion and undermines the assertion that “God does exist.”

      • noen says:

        “John Jones was at location Z” Is falsifiable. God does not exist is unflasifiable. Saying that John Jones was at location Z and therefore could not have killed Jane Doe is not a negative assertion.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        “John Jones was at location Z” is an assumption of fact in an argument leading to the conclusion “John Jones did not stab and kill Jane Doe.” You are mistaken that the latter is not a negative assertion; please notice the word “not” in the proposition. Similar valid arguments can be constructed which lead to the negative assertion “God does not exist.”

    • Stephen says:

      In this situation, the notion that you “can prove a negative” only applies to the logically impossible, which is saying no more than “the logically impossible is not logically possible”. That’s just a tautology and really doesn’t amount to any substantial information at all.

      When we talk about ‘proving a negative’, especially in the context of God, we are talking empirically or with reference to ontology. You cannot prove anything that way using logic, because in order to do so, you would have to prove your assumptions; and everyone who has taken an introductory logic course knows that you don’t prove assumptions…that’s why they’re called assumptions. Furthermore, as intuitive as it is, there is also no way to prove that logic shares a causal relationship with the external world. Thus, you cannot prove a negative.

  30. oldebabe says:

    To comment on the least important thing in your blog; maybe if you asked the Mexican band to play Malaguena Salerosa, you’d get that Mexican song, not the `other’ Malaguena, originally for piano, I think…

    • Chad says:

      The least important thing? I beg to differ, my dear. You may have single handedly solved the most important riddle facing us today.

  31. Marvin says:

    Perhaps an important distinction can be unpacked by looking at the work “belief”. One can hold a proposition that is unfalsifiable with value. Such is to “believe-in” something. One can hold a proposition that is potentially falsifiable with value if the evidence supports it. Such is to “believe-that” something is true.

    A strong atheist “believes-that” God does not exist. A weak atheist simply does not “believe-in” God.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      I think that approach is very confusing. I think it is better just to translate all “believe-in” propositions to “believe-that” propositions from the outset, and evaluate them from that point.

      In other words, I think that when most people say “I believe in God” they really mean “I believe that God exists.” At least that has been my experience. On the other hand, when most people say “I believe in my family doctor” they don’t mean “I believe that my family doctor exists.” Instead, they mean “Based on prior experience, I trust that my family doctor will diagnose and treat my maladies effectively.”

      • noen says:

        I think that when most people say “I believe in God” they really mean “I believe that God exists.”

        Except you’d be wrong. When people say they believe in God they mean the exact same thing as when they say they believe in their doctor. For most people belief and trust or loyalty are synonymous. Words can and do have more than one definition and those definitions can contradict each other. Language is like that.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        No, you’d be wrong. But we’d have to conduct a scientific survey to settle the matter. At any rate, the assumption of existence comes prior to the assumption of trust. Before you trust your doctor you assume that he exists, and before believers trust their gods they assume they exist.

  32. Bobsy says:

    Why do so many intelligent people waste so much of their time and effort on this debate? Until Jesus flies down in his spaceship and proves everyone right/wrong we’re never going to agree!

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Why do so many intelligent people not spend more of their time and effort in this debate — seeking answers to the Big Questions? “Never” is a very long time.

  33. Martin Andersen says:

    Warning! What follows is a wall of text that is merely the personal opinion of, and definitions used by, a random Internet poster.

    The definition of ‘atheist’ that makes the most sense to me is: ‘one one who lacks a belief in any god’. That includes both those who believe exactly zero gods exist and the ones who are without (positive) beliefs in the existence of any god. I don’t use this definition to inflate the number of atheists in the world, but because I think it is a reasonable way to define the set of people that is complimentary to the set of people that are theists.

    Using this definition I would say that Neil deGrasse Tyson *appears* to be an atheist. I know he says many atheists “claim him” as one of “their own”, but I don’t say so to try and recruit him into any particular movement. To me it is simply an observation.
    Of course, he might have privately held beliefs that I am not aware of, that would put him firmly outside my definition of atheism, but I also have no evidence to believe that is the case, so to me, he is provisionally an atheist.

    Regarding “agnosticism”; to me, the most sensible definition of what it means to be an ‘agnostic’ is: ‘one who states it is unknowable (not simply unknown) whether or not gods exist’. It’s a much stronger statement than: “I don’t know”. It is to say: “I don’t know, you don’t know and we can’t know!”

    Personally, I think it is intellectually dishonest to be a complete agnostic. That is, one who is agnostic regarding *all* the god concepts out there. Many, if not indeed most, gods are demonstrably non-existent, because they have qualities attributed to them that are internally inconsistent or are said to have performed actions that are known not to have taken place. Whether or not they exist, is therefore not a question with an “unknowable” answer. If knowledge is to have any meaning at all, that is.

    Using this definition of what it means to be an agnostic, Neil deGrasse Tyson clearly *isn’t* one regarding the god of the biblical literalists, nor is he agnostic regarding thousands of other gods that are incongruent with reality.
    But he does seem to be agnostic regarding the existence (or nonexistence), of the most vaguely defined god concepts. The gods that do nothing and act as if they didn’t exist in the first place (incidentally this is the kind of god apologists will often time reduce their own god to with their apologetics).

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      As I was reading your post (a very good one by the way), I was thinking that as we attempt to define the word “atheist,” we often confound two different things — the breadth and the depth of the concept. By “breadth” I mean the number of gods or supernatural things to which the term “atheist” refers. So, when some people say “I’m an atheist” they mean “I think it extremely unlikely that the Christian god (“God”)exists.” On the other hand, others mean “I think it extremely unlikely that any gods or any supernatural things exist.” By “depth” I mean the assessed probability for the existence of any particular god. So, when a person says “I’m an atheist; I believe that God doesn’t exist” that can mean “I think the probability that God exists is 1%” or “I think the probability that God exists is 49%.” This is correlated with strength of belief. We may need a new vocabulary in order not to confound these two things. Otherwise, we need to be clear both about the scope of the targeted objects (gods or supernatural things) and the degree of certainty we have when we use the term “atheist.”

  34. Evelyn says:

    Malagueña was composed by Ernesto Lecuona, a Cuban, about a region in Spain. Unless they are true music aficionados, no reason for a Mexican band to know it. It’s like expecting Canadians to automatically know ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.

    Oh, and the other comments about atheists and agnostics was interesting, too. :)

  35. Insightful Ape says:

    Believer: an open mind requires considering the possibility of existence of God.
    Atheist: an open mind requires considering the possibility of existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
    Seriously. There is someone who is everywhere and nowhere at once, who reads and records the thinkings if all of eath’s inhabitants, who hears and sometimes answers prayers uttered in total privacy with no need for any kind of detetor of sound waves…
    And it makes ME arrogant to say I don’t believe this? In any other setting these claims would land you in the psych unit.

    • Max says:

      Suppose the universe is a computer simulation, and God is the programmer who can change the laws of physics, record everything that’s happening, etc. It’s theoretically possible. There’s just no evidence for it.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        Since God is defined as a particular kind of person, every person we test and find to be unable to “change the law of physics” is a piece of evidence against the existence of God. It is theoretically possible that God exists, but it is very very improbable.

  36. Brian Flatt says:

    I understand where you’re coming from Micheal, but you make the same mistake that believers do when they, and you, assert that belief or unbelief is a choice. It is NOT a choice. I did not wake up one day and decide to become an Atheist, Agnostic or whatever. A person either believes certain claims or they don’t. I have even tried to believe, due to familial reasons, all to no avail. My brain does not work in such a way to enable me to believe things without evidence.

    You also claim that you live your life accordingly, based upon the fact that you don’t believe in God. This is a dangerous assertion. I assert that the vast majority of Atheists don’t live their lives any differently than most Christians or other believers do. You are once again, making the same mistake they do, and it is this that allows them to paint us as evil doers who eat babies.

    Other than those two glaring problems, I agree that we must call ourselves something and if other people want to mis-ascribe other beliefs to us that we don’t, that is their problem. People will always do that, but they can always just ask.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      The question of whether we choose our beliefs, especially our religious beliefs, is a difficult one, and I don’t think the answer is as clear cut as you think it is.

      Suppose we define “believe” as the acceptance of a proposition, intended to describe reality, as probably true. Is belief more like hearing a car drive by or more like raising your arm to reach an object off the shelf? To me, it seems more like something in the middle.

      I never pray, wear a cross, eat a “magical” wafer, or go to Church, but many of the Catholics I know do all these things. Also, most atheists vote in favor of gay marriage and most Christians do not. Most atheist women will get an abortion in certain circumstances, and most fundamentalist Christian women will not. I think all this refutes your conclusion that the majority of atheists don’t live their lives “any differently” than most Christians do.

  37. Thomas Lawson says:

    I get it. I get him. I love him. But he wants a free ride.

    According to the video, he thinks being called an atheist is like giving him a set of ear plugs, and when he goes to talk to someone he has to stop and give the ear plugs to the person he’s about to talk to. This man loves to talk, and to give him a label that would essentially make people stop listening scares him. He lives to teach, to explain. Being labeled atheist would kill that ability. I get that.

    I just don’t like his tone. Imagine someone mocking Dr. King for being too “in your face” with his marches and speeches and sit-ins. Imagine someone mocking Harvey Milk for being too “in your face” with his campaigning and gayness.

    Does Dr. Tyson think that claiming agnosticism is going to keep science education alive in America? Does he think mocking atheist activism against anti-evolution bills is too “in your face?” He’s going to reap the benefits of having more people to listen to him after atheists have fought the ignorance that he spends his day tiptoeing around, and that just irks me. He doesn’t have to be openly atheist. He can claim agnosticism if he wants, but he can’t claim to not want what all atheists want, and that is a long “moment of science.”

  38. BillG says:

    I hate labels – “I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me as a member.” (Was that Woody Allen or Groucho Marx?)

  39. chrisdbarry says:

    Klem, you are right, the burden of proof is on the claimer, but I think you misunderstand the concept of “proof” as it relates to the scientific process. There is significant evidence supporting the position of anthropogenic climate change. However, providing a “proof” is not black or white. It is a continuum, and as the evidence mounts to support a position, logically we become more certain of that position. When it comes to making decisions about what to do about certain issues (social, health, environmental), you need to apply a risk evaluation, and/or a cost/benefit evaluation. For instance, what is the cost of doing something versus the risk of doing nothing when applied to the climate change question? For the issue of climate change, if we wait until we move from 90% certain to 99.9% certain (since science is never 100%) it will be too late (some scientists are suggesting it may already be too late) as the evidence you require will be apparent.

    In the same way, using the scientific method, I would find it very difficult to give the existence of a god or gods little more than a few percent at best, given the evidence is circumstantial and mostly second hand.

    • klem says:

      “using the scientific method, I would find it very difficult to give the existence of a god or gods little more than a few percent at best”

      Agreed, especially not as God is usually defined by most people as the invisible old guy who lives amoung the clouds in heaven. It’s bizarre fantasy.

      I also find it equally difficult to equate CO2 with the modern day devil based on the opinion of modern day priests (climate scientists). Even if 99% of those priests have found a consensus about it.


  40. Joe C says:

    The definition of deist would have been helpful in this article:

    Deism is a religious philosophy which holds that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of an all-powerful creator. According to deists, the creator rarely, if ever, either intervenes in human affairs or suspends the natural laws of the universe.

    I call myself an “agnostic deist”. I’ve seen no proof of a creator/god, but since the “big bang theory” is so very lame, I leave open the possibility of a “creator”; but even then there’s zero proof he/she/it wants to be worshiped as a “god”. We might be some distant alien’s 7th grade science project.

    • klem says:

      Climate alarmism mught fall under that definition of deist. Where mother earth is the deity.

      Thanks for this, I had never looked at climate alrmism like that before.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      If you call yourself an “agnostic deist” then you are doing much more than “leaving open” the possibility of a creator. You are asserting that it is more likely than not that a creator does exist. You will need good evidence, reasons, or arguments for making such an assertion. You have a burden, if not of proof, then at least “rational demonstration.”

  41. Nicky says:

    “Of course, no one is agnostic behaviorally. When we act in the world, we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God, so by default we must make a choice, if not intellectually then at least behaviorally”

    What If God or no God is not a “main” question in life..?
    Can’t we just be free from this partition?
    People believe in the weirdest things but we don’t divide the world into believers in “ghosts” and “no ghosts”. I suggest to get out of this and say..”God? What God?”

    As soon as God/no God will not be felt as a “problem”, a question to ask, a main concern…then we will be “cured”…

    One can redefine God so can prove his existence or “bring him to earth” in the cauldron of any other subject discussed among people – in such way this subject won’t define a person or a way of living or a behavioural tract…or at least it will, but the same way a person likes playing tennis or eating cheesecake rather than golf and chocolate chips cookies…

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      No, “God” already has a commonly accepted definition. You cannot redefine it. You can define new gods, but you can’t redefine “God.”

      In this world I don’t think you can really avoid the question “Does God exist?” Someone will ask you the question or you will ask yourself the question. And at bottom, there are only three possible kinds of answers 1) He probably does. 2) He probably does not. and 3) I can’t decide whether he probably does or he probably does not.

  42. PersephoneK says:

    Nicely said! For the record, I agree about Maleguena! Played it with the University of Minnesota marching band (I know there’s a recording somewhere). Amazing solo by a friend of mine.

  43. CountryGirl says:

    It would seem that if you are an atheist then you wouldn’t even think about god or desire to argue about it. Once you decide to crusade your atheism and joust with believers then you have become a believer and have adopted a religion.

    • Student says:

      You haven’t adopted a religion. Grow up. Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby. It has no beliefs, no dogma, no leaders, and most importantly to dismiss it as a religion, it has no supernatural elements.

      Jousting with believers is important when they want to ban contraception, or vote based on imaginary friends, or force people to marry their rapists.

      Most importantly, by your (Irrational) logic, that arguing with a position, or wanting to, means that you believe it (If I’m not an Atheist, I’m a Theist: That’s how it works.), then by debating the existance of Bigfoot, we covertly acknowledge it’s existance.

      Why is it that amongst Theistic Skeptics, that the topic of religion brings out the most special pleading? Can’t they resolve their cognitive dissonances on their own time?

      • CountryGirl says:

        Wow! You are clueless. Would a non-stamp collector spend time thinking how he could argue with stamp collectors? Would he spend time trying to prove not collecting stamps was a more intelligent then collecting stamps? You have proved my point. A non-stamp collector would never give stamps or collecting stamps a thought. It is the preoccupation with not collecting stamps the proselytizing about the foolishness of collecting stamps and the wisdom of not being a collector of stamps that is the “non-stamp collectors” religion.

      • Ubi Dubium says:

        A non-stamp collector would spend time on it if he were beseiged every day with evangelical stamp-collectors. If people went around publicly proclaiming that only stamp collectors were moral people, and that they should be allowed to impose their standards of stamp collecting in every school and at every public event. If only stamp-collectors could be elected to public office. If stamp-collectors got special tax breaks due to their collector status.

        Nobody has ever knocked on my door to tell me I needed to collect stamps with them, or handed me a tract threatening me with eternal punishment if I didn’t collect stamps. If theists were to start behaving like stamp collectors for a change, we atheists would not need to be so noisy.

      • CountryGirl says:

        Funny, I’m a non stamp collector and a non-believer and I am never beseiged by collectors or believers. I don’t care what someone believes why should you?

        I enjoy the people who come to my door. I treat them politely and don’t bother to take any of their literature. I especially like the Mormons who are always polite, intelligent good young men and woman who will someday make positive contributions to our society. Compared to the people who come to my door wanting to sell magazines or paint my house they are a blessing (can I say that? You aren’t offended are you?). Learn to see the good in people. Quit judging them because they are religious. Stop argueing with them and leave them be and you will find that they aren’t interested in arguing with you.

    • Beelzebud says:

      For a good part of history, just saying you were an atheist could get you in to a lot of trouble with society. Being able to openly discuss your views isn’t a “crusade”, speaking is not “jousting”. The only places you can find atheist voices are places where you have to seek them out. It is not being forced upon you.

      Finally the intellectual cop out. When you don’t want to mount a defense, just fall back to calling your opponents “believers”, and say that science is nothing more than a religion. We see this tactic used a lot these days. Climate science is “religion”, Evolutionary theory is “religion”, etc, etc.

      The next time you feel like an atheist is waging a holy war against you, I recommend you close the book, or get off the internet, because those are the only places once can find those voices. They certainly aren’t coming to your house as an uninvited guest, or given airtime in the pop culture.

      • CountryGirl says:

        “waging a holy war against” me??? I think they are waging a war against religious people.

    • Max says:

      So if you joust with believers in bigfoot, alien visitors, and psychic readings, then you have become a believer, right?

      • CountryGirl says:

        If that becomes your passion and you cannot have a conversation without discussing it then indeed you have crossed a line of some kind and remain clueless. Don’t you get it if you truely don’t believe in god or religion then you get past it and never worry your little mind over it again.

      • PersephoneK says:

        Like has already been well said, its not that easy to “get past it” when our entire world is significantly impacted by the beliefs of religious people. Those beliefs impact how we are forced to live our lives in very significant ways. What frustrates most atheists is that those beliefs are based on nothing more than what people want to be true (and pretty much the beliefs of the household they were born into), instead of good reasons based on facts. And no, a lack of belief is not a religion. Once again, someone has mistaken a passion for an idea for a religion. They are not the same thing.

        So yes, atheists will continue respond to silly statements and actions by theists. It wouldn’t need to happen as much if more theists were like Michael Shermer who today rescinded his statement about proving a negative. How many theists come out to say they were wrong about something in the face of evidence?

      • CountryGirl says:

        “Passion for an idea”? What’s your idea? That you don’t believe in god/religion. LOL Why the passion? Just continue to not believe and go on and live your life. Who cares? I simply don’t see the need for passion on this.

    • Syd Foster says:

      When I walk through town and have to put up with religious propagandists using a microphone and a PA to roar amplified threats to my “soul”, I resent the spiritual blackmail they are imposing (loudly) on my peace of minding my own business. When I have to answer the door to missionaries trying to tell me obvious nonsense, I feel imposed upon. When I see religious preaching on television disguised as “A Thought For the Day”, I feel imposed upon and once again see the uncritical respect given to nonsense in the name of religion so that it can be foisted upon us. And yet, if after all this goading from the religious, if I dare to express my own views, I am accused of attacking the loud bullies! I am accused of stridence, if I have become irritated and frustrated beyond tolerance by their insistent pollution of my life!

      Indeed, CountryGirl, I would love to never have to think about religion and the religious ever again! Perhaps you could start a movement among the religious to get them to just shut the hell up?

      • CountryGirl says:

        I feel the same way about most other people’s choice of music but somehow I have no desire to wage a holy war against them.

      • Syd Foster says:

        You are just like noen (see below), not listening to the other point of view and arguing away. Pointless talking to you. Just read my post above again. Then actually think about what I said.

        As to your ‘holy war’ idiocy… truth must be rediscovered, and reiterated. When superstition tries to dictate public policy, good citizens must respond. I call that decent humanity. Nothing holy about it. I’m for decent, compassionate human minds. Call me hateful for that, and I call you a wilfully bind and ignorant egoist… not a holy person in any way. Goodbye, I hope you manage to start practicing what you preach one day.

      • noen says:

        Shorter Syd Foster: Life sure is hard for us bigots.

      • Syd Foster says:

        You are such a dick. All my explanation of why fascist pollution of my space is irritating as hell, just water off a duck’s back to you, small-minded bigot yourself, there, Mr come in here all antagonistic with your first post waving your mental fists around… you are right in one thing, I am prejudiced against people who come on all self-righteous like you blowing hot air and ignorance, throwing accusations … know what? I just can’t be bothered with you.

      • noen says:

        “fascist pollution of my space

        Other people exercising their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech is not fascism. You appear to have the delusion that you *own* the town you live in: “When I walk through town and have to put up with religious propagandists” and that when other people do not cater to your needs that is fascism.

        “Mr come in here all antagonistic with your first post waving your mental fists around”

        1. I’m a woman and
        2. Your hate filled bigoted anti-religious rant simply validates what I’ve said all along.

      • Syd Foster says:

        I call it fascist because of the spiritual blackmail they are blaring over their PA. That’s far more in-your-face than any atheist response has ever been. You would have understood that from my post above where I tried to explain to Country Girl why atheists feel the intrusion of evangelicals and tend to respond in a grumpy way to such foolish and persistent pollution. But you just cherry pick points to argue against and don’t even pay attention to what it is you are arguing against. That’s why I won’t be responding to you anymore noen. And whether you are a womb or a frog is beside the point. You came in full of hate, and created what you interpret as a hate-filled response. That’s karma! Now fck off and leave me in peace.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      To me, that makes no sense at all. Theists do not become atheists just because they choose to think about atheism or to argue about it. And atheists do not become theists just because they choose to think about theism or to argue about it.

      I am an atheist, but I think about God several times a week and argue with theists frequently. So what? That does not change my status as an atheist.

  44. AL says:

    not one Mexican restaurant band I have ever asked seems to know one of the greatest Spanish pieces ever produced: Malagueña.

    It’s not that surprising that a Mexican band wouldn’t know a Spanish song. It’s like complaining that an American band doesn’t know a particular British song. Why would they?

    • D.A.W. says:

      AL, you are quibbling in a silly way:

      “It’s not that surprising that a Mexican band wouldn’t know a Spanish song. It’s like complaining that an American band doesn’t know a particular British song. Why would they?”

      By “Spanish song” what is meant is a song in the Spanish language and Latino culture. Mexican, Panamanian, Colombian, Peruvian, Chilean, Argentinean, OR of the country of Spain does not have anything to do with it.

      Likewise, an “English song” could have been composed in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, or in several other places, OR in the United Kingdom. England does not have anything to do with it.

      A German song could have come from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, or several other places, including South America.


    • klem says:

      Or like complaining that a Federation band doesn’t know the Klingon drinking song “‘ej HumtaH ‘ej DechtaH ‘Iw”. Can you imagine?

    • Tim says:

      According to Terrence Farrel the Malagueña is a Flamenco. Flamenco is the Gypsy music of Spain and typically named after where the Gypsy was from (Malaga). A Mexican restaurant band typically is a Mariachi genre band and therefore it isn’t surprising they are not playing a Spanish Gypsy piece.

    • oldebabe says:

      The Spanish Malaguena was not a `song’…

    • hogarth says:

      D.A.W., this is not a silly quibble. The comparison used apparently went right over your head. Saying that a Mexican band should know Malagueña is like saying A Martian should know “Purple People Eater”. Does that work better for you?
      It would be utterly stupid to insist that a Mexican band know Malagueña. The author’s cultural ignorance is showing.

  45. Mike Smith says:

    “When most people employ the word “atheist,” they are thinking of strong atheism that asserts that God does not exist, which is not a tenable position (you cannot prove a negative). ”

    How is that not a tenable position ? By the same logic I can’t prove beyond all doubt we dont live in the Matrix or this is not a dream you are about wake up from. I can prove all of the above beyond reasonable doubt but not beyond all doubt.

    “There is no god” is the only tenable position for rational thinkers.

    • klem says:

      Read Rene Decartes, he was ahead of you by 400 years on this topic.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      I’ll meet you half way on that. In my opinion, “It is very improbable or almost certain that God (defined in the traditional way) does not exist” is the only tenable position for rational thinkers. I think we can be more confident that some gods do not exist than that others do not exist. It depends on how each “god” is defined.

  46. John says:


    I really appreciate your view and Tyson’s on this matter. As an Agnostic conservative, I always try and focus on freedom and reason. It bothers me to see too many take a stand to eliminate religion by becoming movements that are as irritating as religious ones. Accepting non-belief or gods should be through education and logic …….not angry righteous movements!

    I do think labels are problematic.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Labels are problematic when people don’t give clear definitions for labels or misuse them. Almost all words are labels aren’t they?

      Why can’t or shouldn’t atheists be angry? They should be angry; they just shouldn’t be uncivil in communication or engage in physical aggression towards believers. Any person having an opinion on something thinks they are right.

  47. Dionysis says:

    Not a bad read although these things have been said many times. But.. Could you not promote your books so much? I think a mention of them would be enough for whoever is interested to check… Just some friendly feedback! :)

  48. Eric T says:

    The problem for me is what is meant by the term “God”.

    If the relevant entity is defined as being both good and omnipotent, I take the strong atheist position: I don’t think the existence of such a being would be consistent with the world in which I live.

    If your “God” is evil, or good but not omnipotent, then I’m an agnostic: such a being could exist, but I see no evidence that he, she, or it does.

    So, no Yhwh; but Kali or Loki would be possible.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      You rightly show why it is so important to identify the god under discussion at the outset.

  49. Oozoid says:

    An atheist rejects the God hypothesis having considered the evidence. An agnostic introduces a new hypothesis for which there is no evidence. Indeed, the evidence to prove the Agnosticism hypothesis (i.e. locating a god) is also the evidence which would disprove it. Agnosicism can only be falsified, never verified.

  50. John Shuey says:

    To my mind the “behavior/psychological” division is just as much a dodge as the “atheist/agnostic” one.

    As a reasoning individual I believe I can say with a great degree of confidence that neither the Abrahamic god nor any other god ever envisioned by humankind exists. To all such gods I am an Atheist, for accumulated evidence and reason demand as much.

    As to whether there could be a “god” of one type or another, a deistic prime mover perhaps, hiding somewhere in the far reaches of this universe or beyond, I must logically remain agnostic, at least for the time being.

    • klem says:

      The existance of God is impossible to prove. If there is a God, it is so far outside our understanding that we would not recognize the signs of that God if they landed on our head. The signs might be there every day but we could never see them. We don’t have the brain power.

      It would be like a bacteria trying to understanding that an enormous bi-pedal god was observing them as they grew in a petrie dish.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        The existence of God is impossible to prove? I don’t think so. Suppose you prayed “God, please appear to me now and create an adult human man (a new Adam) out of this handful of dust I give to you” and then it immediately happened in front of you and 11 other witnesses. Is this impossible to occur? If you think it is impossible, please demonstrate how that is the case.

        Has anything like this ever happened? No, I don’t think so, but that is different from saying that it is impossible.

      • Loonyyy says:

        And the story of Gideon would have us believe that he once did so. If Gideon was worthy of being given proof, how is it that the rest of us aren’t?

  51. Martin Shelby says:

    If I could have voted for book of the year, The Believing Brain would have been it. Nice work.

  52. Scrapius says:

    The definition of athiest much consider this: While it may be outside the range of human cognitive capacity to finally know the nature/origin of the universe–though I doubt it and we may well have figured it out already–there can be little doubt that “god” as embraced by traditonal religions does not exist. That is, the all-powerful, all loving, all forgiving god that allows such unspeakable, sadistic horrors to happen to the humanity created in his image on a daily basis and requires such exquisit contortions of reasoning to “explain” by his faithful. How can anyone not be an athiest as regards the obviously twisted logic of this belief system? On the other hand, to be a scientist means to always be open to new evidence and, so, by definition, all scientists must remain agnostics at the theoretical level. Like Richard Dawkins, we must needs be “Level 6″ agnostics: There might be a god like there might be a tooth fairy.

  53. Joseph Esser says:

    It has become more complex because the popular meaning for both labels has taken on new definitions. Personally I answer Agnostic/Atheist when asked. Those who are Religious or “Spiritual” ask how I can be both. I am Agnostic because I believe that we still don’t know everything there is to know. Ongoing scientific research reveals new dimensions and information. In respect to the theism I am completely resolved that none of the stories told are anything more than tales. I am angry at what humanity does in “it’s” name regardless of which deity is involved and the practitioners who commit heinous acts and wrap themselves in the cloak of a believe to justify their actions. Atheists say that I am weak in my convictions, the Agnostics state that I am arrogant and the believers that I am lost.

    • David H. Eisenberg says:

      When people disagree, Joseph, about some issue that is meaningful to them, they often like to assign a persoanl reason that you are wrong, because that removes a need to make a rational argument. Thus, they characterize you as you described.

  54. Chris Mohr says:

    Many years ago I ran across the term “netheist,” someone who asserts that there definitely is no God. The term never gained traction… it can’t even be found in a google search. An atheist can put the burden of proof on a theist; a netheist would have to take the burden of proof back on him/her, to disprove God.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Most of my atheist friends disagree with me on this, but I think when the atheist asserts “God very probably does not exist,” then he has a burden of rational demonstration, just as the theist who asserts “God very probably does exist.” Agnosticism or the “I can’t decide” position is the default one which has no such burden.

  55. David H. Eisenberg says:

    I don’t think there is any doubt that some people are “technically” atheists – that is, they do not believe in God, but find it more comfortable to call themselves agnostic due to fear of public opinion, just as some atheists completely hide it from others. I’ve learned from a gay person who was a therapist that when some gays come out (including himself), it was more comfortable calling themselves bisexual than gay for a while. It seems like an atheist calling himself an agnostic is usually done for the same reason. But, I do not doubt that there are some people who actually are bisexual or agnostics. Nor should it be really important in our society what they call themselves.

    I call myself an atheist b/c I don’t see any evidence for a God – that there is something beyond natural explanations to explain creation and other topics, and I agree with others that the burden is on those who believe in an explanation of anything to show evidence of it, whether in science, religion, art, etc. I suppose I could call myself agnostic, if I wanted, because I acknowledge not having an explanation for first cause, but I don’t, because in my mind, to say “God created the universe” is synonymous with saying “I don’t know.” It is not really an explanation, but a theory without any support. It is no different from not knowing the “theory of everything” or why there is gravity between the planets as opposed to antigravity. Ignorance of either does not logically require belief in the supernatural.

    As to the issue of whether atheism is a religion or a faith too, I would say that religion requires a belief in the supernatural at some level, even if just in creation. But, also, there is a difference between believing in something because you have no evidence of it, and not believing in something b/c there is no evidence of it.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Compare “I don’t believe that God exists” vs. “I believe that God does not exist.” It seems that the latter is a subset of the former.

  56. Enrique García Coroa says:

    Your Mexican restaurant bands probably do not know “Malagueña” because it is not a Mexican piece. It is Spanish.

  57. Eric T says:

    “Atheism is a religion in the same way that baldness is a hair colour.”

    • noen says:

      “Bald” is certainly one of the properties that people can have. “She’s a blond” or “he’s bald” or “what a tow head” are all perfectly good sentences.

      Lacking a property is itself a property.

      • MajorityofOne says:

        Ohhhhkaaay. Scratches head full of HAIR and walks away.

      • Phea says:

        Guy walks up to a bald man in a bar, rubs his head and says, “Your head feels just like my wife’s bare ass.” Bald man reaches up, rubs his head and replies, “Ya know, you’re right!”

        (sorry, it just sorta slipped out.)

      • noen says:

        “Scratches head full of HAIR and walks away.”

        Baldness is not a property of hair.

        So… atheism is not as baldness is to hair color because the property of being bald is not one that hair can have. You’ve made a category error.

        It is an embarrassingly bad argument that would not pass even in a sophomore course on elementary logic.

      • tmac57 says:

        Could one have the ‘property’ of atheism (as defined as lack of belief in God) if the concept of God had never existed? In fact you could not believe in a concept that does not exist,but on the other hand how could you have a property of something that doesn’t exist? This leaves atheists in the peculiar position of being defined in relation to an imaginary being (from their point of view).No wonder many atheists or agnostics reject the labels altogether as being superfluous.

      • noen says:

        I am quite surprised to learn that as a fan of Dr. Who I can have no beliefs about him because he is an imaginary being.

        Fans of Sherlock Holmes would also be perplexed to discover that neither he nor Dr. Watson reside at 221 Baker Street.

        Next you’ll tell me Big Bird doesn’t live on Sesame Street. Heretic!

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        But bald vs. not bald is not the same property as hair color.

        Worldviews may be religious or nonreligious. But atheism is not a worldview; it is a position on the existence of God, gods, or the supernatural.

        “Religious atheism” and “atheistic religion” are oxymorons.

  58. M Henri Day says:

    Good distinction, Michael, between an intellectual position, on the one hand, and a behavioural position, on the other. But your reasoning is at least partially vitiated by your statement to the effect that «you cannot prove a negative». While (all too) frequently put forward, this proposition is patently false – to take the classic example, the Greeks proved a couple of millenia ago that there exists no rational number that corresponds to the square root of 2. The idea that the truth value of a negative statement can never be determined may suffice for persons like Donald Henri Rumsfeld, but of Skeptic’s founder, we should be able to expect a greater degree of intellectual (and behavioural) rigour….


    • ullrich fischer says:

      Hmmm. I think this is more a semantic issue. The formulation should be that you can’t prove anything absolutely outside of mathematics. As soon as you get to the messy world of real interacting intelligent and physical entities, the logical laws that derive from the relatively few mathematical axioms do not apply except as approximations and to the degree that the chosen mathematical abstractions describe the real objects. What we can and must do, instead, is to come up with working hypotheses and theories which withstand more and more attempts to refute them. Evolution is one such hypothesis. Gravity is another. Both have by dint of withstanding criticisms been raised to laws of nature. Both are subject to change and continual refinement as Newton’s understanding of Gravity gave way to Einstein’s and as Darwin’s idea of gemmules gave way to DNA expression and regulation mechanisms. God as defined by any extant religion is a whole different kettle of fish. The concept of God is rarely refined at all and never by reference to either mathematical logic or real world evidence. Whatever definition of God you choose to believe can be and has been soundly refuted by the same kind of evidence that has supported Gravity and Evolution — with the possible exception of the clockwork god who kickstarts everything and then takes an infinitely long vacation… and since such a complicated idea is, as Dr. Lawrence Krauss has explained in “A Universe From Nothing”, not required to explain our observable universe, Occam’s razor should be employed to excise that concept from our story of creation.

      • bill wallace says:

        And according to Heisenburg you can’t prove anything conclusively INSIDE mathematics.

        In any case, no religious person is going to be swayed by logic and other words. Where are the atheists clubs for adults and children? Volunteer groups? Choirs and basketball courts? Social club stuff? You can’t compete with those things. I think we have a lot of nonbelievers going to church for nonreligious reasons. Why can’t we see that belief is an emotional thing? Logic-tight. I like the metaphor of the elephant and the rider. the elephant is in charge of going to church – the rider, which one.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        Outstanding post. Outside of mathematics and logic, perhaps we should avoid the words “prove” and “disprove.” I suggest words like “support” and “undermine” as more appropriate.

    • Wesley Kerfoot says:

      Mathematical truths are not the same types of truths as scientific ones. Particularly, mathematical truths are *purely* deductive. You start with a set of axioms that you don’t make any effort to prove, and then you define a set of valid operations on those axioms which you then use to create theorems, and if you follow the rules correctly, then you “prove” something within that particular system.

      On the contrary, scientific truths are not really truths at all. They are more like an approximation to the truth, and they use a combination of deductive and inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is something that you do innately whenever you see a particular instance of something and make a generalization based on it. Of course science is much more than generalizations about physical events — it is also about making theories that allow you to fit previously “unrelated” events into one general theory which those events naturally emerge out of, and with which you can make more accurate predictions (See: General relativity).

      I could go on and on, but for more information I recommend reading “The Scientific Outlook” by Bertrand Russell, as well as “Conjectures and Refutations” by Karl Popper, and any books by modern philosophers of science or mathematics in general. <- link to the former

  59. ullrich fischer says:

    Further on the kickstarting god idea. As Krauss point out, such a hypothesis as well as being untestable, contributes nothing to our knowledge of our ultimate origins. It merely begs the question as to who or what created the kickstarting god and leads then to the same kind of absurd infinite regression as the “turtles all the way down” hypothesis for what was supporting the hypothetical flat earth before the ancient Greeks and other “primitive” (but strangely not as primitive as the good lawmakers of Kentucky or Louisiana with their ‘teach the controversy’ laws)civilizations figured out that the earth was more globular than flat.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Remember that all gods are conceived to be super persons. Of all the persons we have ever tested (perhaps all the persons who have ever lived on the Earth) none has been a kickstarter (confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt). And so, even a kickstarter god, although not impossible, is very unlikely.

      If the universe has always existed in one form or another, then a kickstarter is not needed.

  60. Irwin Mortman says:

    Certainly it’s difficult to discuss with one’s belief or a biblical literalist. From time to time I teach a class, “Torah for Non-Jews and Jews” and “Who Wrote the Torah?” In the class I discuss the various Jewish groups from the ultra orthodox to Jewish atheists. I an usually asked what what am I. And my answer is always, it depends on the question. I propose this is a good analogy to Michael Sherman’s essay. And “it depends” on not only of religion but also plotical matters and everyday lifr.

  61. Anton Struntz says:

    Don’t believe that there is a god. But like the bumper sticker says “I don’t know and neither do you.”
    Everything else is zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

  62. Reed Richter says:

    When most people employ the word “atheist,” they are thinking of strong atheism that asserts that God does not exist, which is not a tenable position (you cannot prove a negative). Michael

    “Proving a negative” is such a canard. I know that over the years that Michael has had philosophers correct him on this point (yes, I’m one of those–Ph.D. and all), but I can’t understand why the point hasn’t stuck. I would love to hear Michael’s response to this post.

    1. Applying the notion of “proof” to science is a confusing anachronism–it implicitly confuses the distinction between deductive and inductive justification. We generally understand knowledge to be _justified_ true belief. And for over a thousand years, since the ancient Greeks, the only well-recognized and understood form of justification was _deductive_ inference and a mathematical or geometric proof: a rule-driven deduction of a conclusion from specified given premises. So as paradigms of justification we had Euclidean proofs and theorems, mathematics, and Aristotelian syllogisms:

    P1. All men are mortal.
    P2. Socrates is a man.
    Therefore C. Socrates is mortal.

    In today’s world we recognize a much broader, more nuanced conception of empirical justification: induction combined with deduction. In fact, the primary means of scientific justification is inductive reasoning: evidence, confirmation, disconfirmation, and probability.

    Here’s the principal difference:

    A deductive argument/proof/justification =df the relationship between conclusion and premises purports to be one of necessity and absolute certainty. It is logically impossible for both (a) the premises (P1 and P2) of the Socrates argument above to be true, and simultaneously for (b) the conclusion C to be false. Which is to say that necessarily, if P1 and P2 are true, then the conclusion C is also true. [BTW, that is different from the claim that if P1 and P2 are true, then necessarily C is true. The latter is a false claim--the fact that C is derivable from P1 and P2 doesn't make C alone a necessary truth.] Whether or not a deductive argument (proof, etc) is successful (“valid” in logic-speak) is not a matter of degree of probability or certainty: the conclusion either is fully implied (in which case it is a good deductive justification, or it isn’t, in which case it is invalid and a bad deductive justification).

    An inductive argument/explanation/justification =df the relationship between conclusion and premises purports to be one of probability–not deductive certainty. In contrast to a deductive justification, inductive justification is a matter of degree, or strength: inductive arguments cannot always be characterized as definitively good or bad, but rather they are strong, weak, or somewhere in between. A well-tested, well-confirmed scientific theory is strongly supported by the data and thus highly probable or likely given the agreed upon data. So, given the strong multiple strands of consilient evidence supporting the theory of evolution (the premises), the conclusion that speciation and life on earth evolved by natural selection, etc., stands highly probable in relationship to its supporting evidence. Highly probable, but _not_ certain.

    Now I’m sure that Michael understands and agrees that no scientific or empirical claim can be justified with absolute certainty. So it is with the conclusion C, Socrates is mortal. Yes, the Aristotelian syllogism is a good deductive argument: but that only means that _were_ it granted that P1 and P2 were unquestionably true and certain, the principles of deduction guarantee that the truth of C _would_ also be unquestionably true and certain. One can’t somehow detach the certainty of C from the certainty of the premises. So, in and of itself, the claim Socrates is (was) a man, is like any other empirical claim: it cannot be independently “proved” or established with deductive certainty. However we can provide a good inductive justification for the claim that it’s highly likely Socrates was a man. If you wan’t to call this a “proof”, fine, but bear in mind that sort of proof is logically distinct from mathematical and other deductive proofs.

    2. Michael’s confusion: He is implicitly permitting only a deductive standard of scientific or empirical “proof” in justifying negative claims, while permitting inductive standard of justification in evaluating or justifying positive scientific or empirical claims.

    Originally the notion of “proof” was historically defined only in terms of deductive certainty–as it still is today when we speak of a mathematical proof. But before the difference between deduction and induction was fully appreciated, people applied the concept of “proof” to all justification deductive and otherwise–particularly in cases where an inductive justification was clearly strong and convincing. This confusion is perfectly illustrated by Sherlock Holmes, who gave excellent, brilliant inductive justifications, but mistakenly called them “deductions” and clearly thought of his justifications as akin to geometric proofs: he spoke as if his “deductions” followed with absolute certainty from the truth of the premises. Hence he was always purporting to “prove” this and that, etc., when _at best_ he was only establishing most claims with high probability, not certainty.

    When Michael claims one “cannot prove a negative [existential claim],” he quite clearly means that in a deductive sense and cannot be speaking inductively.

    Suppose someone makes the negative claim:

    (B) There is no book with the title “John goes to Boston” in the Library of Congress: either in the catalog or in physical form.

    Deductions, or truths by virtue of definition or meaning, are the only known type of justification that purports to establish a claim with certainty–absolute or otherwise. Well (B) is clearly not true by definition. And there are certainly no agreed upon premises that we claim to know with certainty from which we can deduce B. Therefore, B cannot be “proved” is this manner. Even if we computer searched the entire Library of Congress database and found no such title, according to Michael’s way of thinking, that still wouldn’t prove B true. After all, maybe some data entry person forgot to catalog the book, right? Maybe the book is on the shelf, but someone wickedly destroyed all paper records of it prior to making catalog digital. Since that scenario is consistent with everything else we know, we can’t rule it out. Hence, by a deductive standard even a careful catalog search can’t justify a claim to “know” or prove B.

    However, if (B) can’t be “proved” or “known,” neither can E (below) thus be “proved” or known:

    (E) The sun is at the center of the solar system.

    Can we establish, or “prove” with absolute certainty that the sun is the center of our solar system–a paradigm positive scientific truth. Pah! No. For all we know aliens are screwing with our heads. Maybe we’re in a virtual reality matrix and there is no solar system, etc., etc. While these scenarios are highly improbable, they are nevertheless POSSIBLE. (E) is hardly true by definition and, as Michael would be the first to admit, possibly false. So it’s possible we can be completely mistaken about E and not know it.

    Something has gone horribly wrong here. If we can’t scientifically know or prove the truth of (E), then for all practical purposes we can’t know any important scientific truth, and science becomes useless as a basis for generating knowledge. Applying the same standards of knowledge and justification that Michael applies to B, and all other negative claims, undermines a coherent basis for knowing any empirical truth.

    3. The Solution (the Alternative below): A more fruitful conception of empirical and scientific justification that makes better sense of what we can claim to “know”. On this Alternative account, the above problem of scientific knowledge and justification disappears–atheism is a tenable, intellectual/epistemic position. Unlike Michael’s account, on the Alternative, one can know and justify the truth of negative claim: Michael’s distinction between behavioral and epistemic atheism ceases to be meaningful. If so, Michael may not realize it, but he is a strong atheist, not just in a behavioral sense, but in a strong epistemic sense. If the account of epistemic justification below succeeds without a need to posit two kinds of atheism, and introduces no distinctions or complications that Michael doesn’t already recognize and accept, then it should be accepted on the grounds that it’s a simpler, less complicated, more elegant account of empirical justification.

    The Alternative: Recognize the principal inductive/probabilistic nature of scientific justification. Drop the misleading talk of “proving” scientific or empirical claims. (This also includes related deductive terminology such as “falsify”.) Accept the potential fallibility of genuine knowledge: understand that a belief in a claim (S) can be scientifically justified, and you can justifiably claim to “know” the truth of S (e.g. the sun is at the center of the solar system), even though you recognize that S is possibly false; and, even if justified, perhaps you may turn out to mistaken in believing that you do in fact know the truth of S.

    Instead, think of empirical knowledge as claims that are highly likely or probably true, given our background knowledge or other claims we judge to be highly likely. Think of inductive justification of what we claim to know in terms of degrees of justified confidence or belief–not simple truth or falsehood. So when one claims to believe some claim X, one doesn’t just believe or not believe X, one believes X with a certain degree of confidence or probability–weak, strong, or in-between (the strength of belief does not require a precise value to be meaningful). Drop locutions such as we can “prove” or “falsify” X, and speak rather in terms of degrees of justification or the strength and weakness of the evidence. So if an experiment is successful, it _confirms_ (rather than decisively proves) a hypothesis–meaning the success of the experiment raises the probable truth of the hypothesis: i.e. makes belief in its truth more justified, and justifies a higher degree of belief or confidence in it. If the experiment doesn’t turn out as hypothesized, then presumably the result disconfirms the hypothesis, not “falsify” or “prove” it false, but rather lowers one’s degree of justified belief in the hypothesis–makes it less probable given the results.

    Think of highly likely, probably true claims as ones we can justifiably bet on–especially in terms of time and resources. As with what we think of as a “good bet,” what we claim to “know” often is not a matter of determining some fixed justified degree of belief or probability, but can change with context, especially depending on perceived risk. Thus, since I spoke to my brother in Chicago this morning, and I reasonably think he has no plans to leave town, I justifiably can “know” he is in Chicago and (all other things equal) would bet $20 on a whim. But if the stakes were much higher, say a person’s life, or my life’s savings, given exactly the same amount of empirical evidence I couldn’t rationally be sure enough to risk that bet. Hence there would be a natural tension in claiming to “know” my brother is in Chicago, but not be willing to accept the odds and make the bet. What justified degree of confidence or belief counts as “knowledge” changes with context. In the case of science, the standard for evaluating what counts as knowledge will be public, institutional, and societal and not directly tied to the risk aversion of any particular individual. So it is coherent to claim that we know S and other principal scientific truths, in the sense they would be rational bets. However, there will be many other cases that will be borderline, or too poorly confirmed to justify a meaningful knowledge claim.

    Finally, if the vagaries of how we apply the term “know” in a circumstance are too problematic, my best advice is to eliminate the word “know”. Instead of claiming to “know” (E), claim to have a high degree of justified confidence in (E). Note as far as dealing with _empirical claims_ are concerned, all we need to do science, and pragmatically succeed in this world, is a pragmatic use of the language of probability, risk, bet, evidence, an understanding of weak versus strong inductive justification, as well as justified degrees of confidence (or lack thereof). To do science, we don’t need to claim we personally “know” that the sun is the center of the solar system, we only need understand that the claim is strongly supported and justified by the work of publicly accessible, _institutional_ science–we can confidently bet time and resources on the claim. Yes, it’s possibly false, but nevertheless justified by publicly accessible multiple and independent strands of evidence, replicated thousands of times, rendering the claim highly likely on the basis of that evidence. We don’t have to claim “know” it, but only understand that on the basis of this evidence it would be quite foolish to bet against the claim. Nevertheless, assigning the claim the status of “scientific knowledge,” is a convenient shortcut for saying all of that complicated inductive stuff, and most of the we communicate just fine on that understanding.

    Atheism v. Agnosticism:

    Is Michael an agnostic about the existence of the Thorax? Surely we inductively have all sorts of evidence and grounds to justifiably believe that the Thorax is a purely fictional character (a positive claim). I personally would bet several thousand dollars that no one could produce a natural, wild thorax creature –and I think Michael would too. We are completely justified in claiming to know that the Thorax is purely fictional. If so, we are completely justified in claiming the Thorax does not exist–exactly the sort of claim that Michael says we cannot “prove.” if athoraxism is the strong belief that no natural thoraxes exist then surely Michael should count himself an athoraxist, and not merely an agthoraxic (neither belief or disbelief). It’s precisely because we have so much evidence concerning the origin and source of the Thorax character, that we are justified in claiming it’s purely fictional and can’t be real. (Even if we discovered a creature on another world that by chance very much looked and acted similar to Dr. Seuss’s character, if there is no causal connection between the two, it still can’t be considered a genuine thorax–only something that coincidentally is very similar.)

    I would personally bet several thousand on the claim that no naturally-formed jupiter-sized planet made of pure gold exists in the universe–that follows from our basic understanding of the Big Bang and how the elements formed. I’m not an “agnostic” about the claim–I’m an “atheist” about the claim.

    Similarly, it’s silly to be agnostic about the Tooth Fairy or Zeus’s existence. Forget about the statist of the negative existential claims: what about all the considerable, systematic historical and scholarly evidence in favor of the claims the Greek god Zeus, and the Tooth Fairy refer to mythical characters originating in fictional folk tales and oral traditions. By definition a mythical character does not physically exist (even if some real character played some causal road in the their origin). So if one is highly justified in betting on the claim that Tooth Fairy is mythical, then it’s a damn good bet that it doesn’t exist–and for that very reason, you ain’t likely to find one. This is essence of good empirical justification for all empirical claims–not just the scientific ones.

    God’s Existence: The needless tension inherent in Michael’s epistemology

    So Michael writes:

    “In The Believing Brain I present extensive evidence to demonstrate quite positively that humans created gods and not vice versa.”

    So think about it: if extensive evidence really does quite positively demonstrate that humans created God as Michael says, then surely Michael is claiming that this very evidence significantly raises the probability of–justifies a high degree of confidence in–the claim that God is a man-made mythical character that doesn’t exist independently of the mind of man. However, the likelihood or probable truth of the claim

    (M) God is a man-made myth

    logically entails the likelihood of the claim

    (G) God doesn’t exist.

    (M) can’t be true without the truth of (G).

    We all agree that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist, even though the idea, concept, or fictional character does exist. So whatever the Tooth Fairy is, whatever we are talking about when we finally admit to a child that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t really exist, it’s not the idea or fictional character we are talking about. The God-exists-in-the-mind-of-men ploy is a copout and a change of subject. Whatever likelihood or probability that Michael can justifiably assign to the claim that “God is a man-made myth” (for example .7+) by sheer logic can be justifiably assigned to the claim “God doesn’t exist.” (Note one can’t coherently claim there is at least a .7 chance that God is a myth and claim there is a smaller chance (say .5) that God doesn’t really exist. Those claims together imply a contradiction.)

    So Michael’s position logically entails that “extensive evidence .. demonstrate[s] quite positively that” God does not exist. Whether this counts as “proof” is beside the point. It shows that empirical and scientific evidence can be brought to bear in support of negative empirical claims in exactly the same sense as with ordinary positive claims. So what sense does it make for Michael to be agnostic with regards to the claim God doesn’t exist, but not the claim God is a myth. And even if Michael can jump through explanatory hoops to make sense of such a position–distinguishing behavioral from “intellectual” agnosticism, why does he want to?

    Reed Richter

    • Wesley Kerfoot says:

      I’m curious, what is your opinion of so called “Bayesian Epistemology”? It seems quite similar to your idea of “degrees of justification” for something. Since Bayes theorem takes into account the amount of evidence you have for some probability, and lets you update your degree of belief in it (I’m sure you know all of this — just explaining for people who might not).

      • Reed Richter says:

        Yes, I am a Bayesian. In my experience a Bayesian approach has proven utility in the field of practical AI applications: e.g. medical diagnosis or programs that evaluate data and identity enemy ships, etc. The best measure of rational justified belief is how much of your time and resources should you rationally be willing to risk or bet on the truth of a claim. I would be willing to bet a considerable sum, say $10,000 of my savings, that scientists will not discover a jupiter-sized planet made of pure gold within the next decade. Not that such a planet is impossible, but just highly unlikely given what we know about the laws of physics and the formation of elements. So as to the claim, “There are no jupiter-sized planets made of pure gold in the universe.” I am saying that I have a justified belief that the claim is highly improbable–which implies I am justified in claiming, “I know there are no gigantic planets made of pure gold that will be discovered in the next decade.” It could nevertheless be false; and I recognize that additional evidence may give me good grounds to revise probability assessment or degree of confidence in a Bayesian manner. What is now a good bet may, a few years hence, look like a bad bet. So be it. Genuine knowledge is fallible. In my view, the primary function–its great pragmatic utility–of science, is to track important empirical claims and separate out the ones we can reliably bet on from those we can’t. The former we call “scientific knowledge.” On this view, Shermer’s distinction between “behaviorally” justified claims and “intellectually” justified claims is meaningless (as he makes the distinction).

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Wow! That is a clear and comprehensive explanation, which if read by Michael, should help him to reformulate his position on this point.

  63. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    One tiny but crucial issue about proving or disproving the existence of god – nothing can ever be proven without a very good proposed description of god and her/his/its nature and characteristics (we could call such a good description a ‘god hypothesis*’ ) And since many religions assert that god’s nature (etc) is unknowable, they preclude the ability of any scientific investigation into her/him/it. In other words, the ‘god hypothesis’ is inadequately defined to provide statements of god’s nature which could be tested.

    And even if you could rule out one particular god hypothesis there are potentially many, many more – we could never test them all.

    *A hypothesis is a proposed theory (which hasn’t been tested yet) and a theory is basically a scientific description or explanation of a phenomenon that offers ‘predictive statements’ that can be tested. The question “Is this scientific” can usually be answered by “Are there any proper hypotheses which offer predictive statements?” In religious matters often the answer is “Hells No!”

    • Wesley Kerfoot says:

      I agree completely. Most semi-rational religious people will recognize this and then immediately assert that “science is not the only way of knowing things”, which is true, but completely misses the point. The point is that most (if not all) religious concepts are ill-defined, and would barely be acceptable as highly abstract poetry much less concrete knowledge about the world.

      It’s too bad that all modern philosophers shun everything to do with logical positivism, because it had some decent ideas and a lot of baggage that goes with it (another case of someone attaching a label to certain ideas).

      For those not in the know, logical positivism was a school of philosophy that came about around the early 20th century and basically tried to show that the only meaningful propositions are ones that are verifiable in principle, excluding propositions that are structurally true like tautologies, and mathematical truths. But it didn’t hold up — mostly because the principle of verifiability is not itself verifiable, and because the idea of verifiability doesn’t line up with how science works (atoms are a theory, and can never be directly observed in principle).

      Thus falsifiability makes more sense because you can test things like the atomic hypothesis based on the predictions it makes about the physical world, and you aren’t limited by having to make your theory verifiable.

      However, I still think that things which make absolutely no predictions (directly observable or otherwise) are for all intents and purposes meaningless, unless there is some chance that it might be able to predict something (e.g. string theory or m-theory). I don’t think there is ever going to be any chance that the notion of a universal god will make observable predictions about the universe (at least not any with real explanatory power). You could be nebulous and claim that if God existed then the totality of nature would exist, but it doesn’t make any useful explanations, instead it simply says “nature exists, and we call that God!”.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        A commonly accepted definition of God is “a super person who created our world and who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good.”
        1. If God exists, then the Holocaust would not have occurred.
        2. The Holocaust did occur.
        3. Therefore, God does not exist.
        Here a prediction is made from a common understanding of God, and the prediction is disconfirmed, casting serious doubt on the existence of God, as defined.
        There are other similar arguments which rule out the biggest God of all, the one believed in by most people. Now, we can move on to examining the others.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      But religious people frequently contradict themselves — saying that God’s nature is unknowable at one time and then claiming to know at least some of God’s nature at other times. I think we can take what they commonly assume to be God’s nature and test predictions based on that.

  64. Tachyon says:

    It seems to me that religion does not try to explain the natural world so much as proscribe principles for human behavior. In that sense, the efficacy of, for example, the Bible as a cosmological model is less important than the teachings and parables within.

    I don’t know that we have some sort of Huffman code for the minimally consistent set of “moral” behavioral principles (for some definition of moral), but it does appear that barring egregious violations by both individuals and institutions, the behavior guidelines espoused promote some sense of happiness and well-being (for some definition of each).

    Mathematics is a wonderful tool that is unreasonably effective in explaining, for example, the physical world, but it in and of itself is not completely consistent, as evinced by Godel’s incompleteness theorem and the failure of Hilbert’s program to find a complete and consistent set of axioms for all mathematics.

    So, to explain the physical world we have science and mathematics, both of which are flawed but for which we currently have no better tools.

    To model individual and collective behavior including societal norms we have religion and culture, both of which are flawed but for which we currently have no better tools.

    Both tools have been, and will likely be again, horribly misused.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Philosophy is a far superior tool to religion for establishing norms. It’s time to use the better tool and cast off religion.

  65. fromkentucky says:

    I often use the concept of an agnostic theist to help illustrate the difference. According to Christian doctrine, God left no evidence of His existence and commanded that He not be tested, because it was all supposed to be taken on faith. Christians aren’t supposed to know if God exists, yet they are expected to believe anyway, thus, faith.

    These theists are absolutely agnostic, yet they still have belief. To use the term Agnostic like Huxley did, to describe a position of belief, is to dismiss an entire category of agnostic theists by not distinguishing between knowledge and belief.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      But who has knowledge that God exists or he does not exist? Aren’t we all agnostics in the sense that we do not know? I think so.

  66. Wil says:

    Dr. Shermer, I am a huge fan and I agree with almost everything you said. EXCEPT that “you cannot prove a negative.” How this phrase became one of the most repeated within this discussion is beyond me, and why so many rational people say it I don’t know.

    You CAN prove a negative. I am a philosophy major, and took this question to my Logic professor (who, go figure, is a genius), and he agreed with me. You absolutely can prove a negative I.E. the conclusion of an argument can be a negation!!!!

    For example:
    (i) If my front yard is dry, then it is not raining.
    (ii) My front yard is dry.
    (iii) Therefore, it is NOT the case that it is raining

    • noen says:

      Scientific facts are established by inductive reasoning, not deductive. Induction cannot prove a negative. Another way to put it is that science cannot verify statements as true, it can only falsify them.

      • Wil says:

        Yes, science uses induction, my example is deductive, but of course if Dr. Shermer (& others) don’t clarify, the statement “you cannot prove a negative” is still false, and coincidentally, me proving that this statement is wrong is proving a negative!

        And I’m not sure I agree with your statement “Induction cannot prove a negative.” It would depend on what you meant by “prove.” But certainly you could have a very strong inductive argument with a negation as the conclusion.

        For example:
        (i) The moon did not collide with Earth yesterday
        (ii) The moon did not collide with Earth on Tuesday
        (iii)…so on and so forth way on back…
        (iv) Therefore, it is NOT the case that the moon will collide with Earth today..

      • noen says:

        Ever hear of a guy named David Hume? You might want to check him out.

        If I prove that 2 + 2 = 4 what I have done is to show that it is necessarily the case that 2 + 2 is identical to 4 and that it is absolutely true in all possible worlds.

        I will grant that we have very strong evidence that because the moon has not collided with the earth in the last 3 billion years or so but that is still not proof. Your argument is invalid as (iv) does not follow from the premises and (iii) is incoherent.

      • Wil says:

        Noen, you said:

        “Your argument is invalid as (iv) does not follow from the premises and (iii) is incoherent.”

        My argument was inductive; all inductive arguments are invalid.

        Sick burn.

      • noen says:

        @ Will

        “My argument was inductive”

        No it was not. Inductive reasoning is NOT arguing from the particular to the universal. That is in fact a logical fallacy. “All swans known so far are white. Therefore all swans are white” is a bad inductive argument because it does not allow for the conclusion to be false even if the premises are true.

        “all inductive arguments are invalid.”

        FALSE. Inductive reasoning is a valid form of reasoning. It just isn’t deductive reasoning. However, what is true of all inductive arguments is that their conclusions do not *necessarily* follow from their premises.

        Also, since all scientific facts are established by inductive reasoning, “all inductive arguments are invalid” is equivalent to saying “all scientific arguments are invalid”. Which is false.

      • wil says:


        you said:

        “Inductive reasoning is a valid form of reasoning. It just isn’t deductive reasoning. However, what is true of all inductive arguments is that their conclusions do not *necessarily* follow from their premises.”

        I was under the impression that a valid argument is one where the conclusion necessarily follows given the premises. Hence why I said inductive arguments are always invalid. You seem to be using the term “invalid” (or thinking that I am using it) to mean “bad,” but I do not mean that. Inductive arguments are invalid, but that doesn’t mean they are bad.

      • noen says:

        “I was under the impression that a valid argument is one where the conclusion necessarily follows given the premises.”

        True, what makes a *deductive* argument valid is if the conclusions necessarily follow from the premises but a valid argument can still reach a false conclusion.

        Science, which is applied inductive reasoning, does not give us truth. It gives us facts and scientific facts are not true in the same sense that mathematical statements are true. Truth is a property that only statements can have.

      • wil says:

        Noen, you said:

        “True, what makes a *deductive* argument valid is if the conclusions necessarily follow from the premises but a valid argument can still reach a false conclusion.”

        I never said that all valid arguments have true conclusions, now you’re setting up straw men to knock down. So what makes an inductive argument valid, since you insist that they can be (in the logical sense of the word, not the other sense of the word)???

        Anyway, my original post was just to point out that the statement “You cannot prove a negative” is just false. And I think since then you’ve conceded as much…

      • noen says:

        “Anyway, my original post was just to point out that the statement “You cannot prove a negative” is just false. And I think since then you’ve conceded as much…”

        No, I have not and no, you have not shown that one can prove a negative claim true beyond deductive arguments. The reason you can’t is because no scientific theory can ever be proven true. To be able to prove a scientific theory true you would have to be able to verify that it is true and the verification principle of the logical positivists has been refuted.

        The positivists, and apparently you too, were guilty of scientism. A disease of the mind that is an epidemic among today’s atheists.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        Induction can demonstrate what is likely and what is unlikely. It is very unlikely that God exists.

    • Max says:

      It’s hard to prove a negative existential (X doesn’t exist) or a positive universal (All X are Y). The two are actually logically equivalent because “All X are Y” equals “An X that’s not Y doesn’t exist.”
      It’s easier to prove a positive existential (X exists) or a negative universal (Not all X are Y) because it only takes one example.

      • Wil says:

        Agreed Max, negative existentials are hard to prove. However there are some that have been proven, so Shermer’s statement (you cannot prove a negative) is still false. There are many examples above…One post points out above that there is no rational number that corresponds to the square root of 2… clearly it is impossible and we should all just recognize that Shermer’s (and others’) statement that you cannot prove a negative is false and we should all stop spreading that around…

  67. Reed Richter says:


    I noticed that you did not publish my April 11, 2012, 7:02 pm reply. Perhaps it was too long (but I have a Ph.D. in philosophy, specializing in philosophy of science and epistemology. Everything I said was relevant and on point). In any case. if the original is too long, then please publish the following excerpt:

    God’s Existence: The needless tension inherent in Michael’s epistemology

    So Michael writes:

    “In The Believing Brain I present extensive evidence to demonstrate quite positively that humans created gods and not vice versa.”

    So think about it: if extensive evidence really does quite positively demonstrate that humans created God as Michael says, then surely Michael is claiming that this very evidence significantly raises the probability of–justifies a high degree of confidence in–the claim that God is a man-made mythical character that doesn’t exist independently of the mind of man. However, the likelihood or probable truth of the claim

    (M) God is a man-made myth

    logically entails the likelihood of the claim

    (G) God doesn’t really exist.

    (M) can’t be true without the truth of (G). (By definition a purely “mythical” entity is one that doesn’t exist in the actual or real world.)

    We all agree that the Tooth Fairy is a mythical being that doesn’t actually exist, even though the idea, concept, or fictional character does exist. So whatever the Tooth Fairy is, whatever we are talking about when we finally admit to a child that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t really exist, it’s not the idea or fictional character we are talking about. The God-exists-in-the-mind-of-men ploy is a copout and a change of subject. Whatever likelihood or probability that Michael can justifiably assign to the claim that “God is a man-made myth” (for example 70%+) by sheer logic can be justifiably assigned to the claim “God doesn’t exist.” (Note two things: (a) to coherently a assign a high degree of confidence or probability to a claim, we don’t need to have a precise value or even range of values in mind–we only need to be able to rank claims as being more or less likely than another; and (b) one can’t coherently claim there is at least a 70% chance that “God is a myth” and claim there is a smaller chance (say under 50%) that “God doesn’t really exist.” Those claims together imply a contradiction.)

    So in claiming that God is likely mythical (a positive claim) Michael’s position logically entails that “extensive evidence .. demonstrate[s] quite positively that “God does not exist” (a negative claim). Whether this counts as “proof” is beside the point. It shows that empirical and scientific evidence can be brought to bear in support of negative empirical claims in exactly the same sense as with ordinary positive claims.

    So show how confused Michael’s position is consider that he would surely agree that based on ample empirical evidence, we can know with a high degree of confidence and probability that the Lorax is a purely fictional character invented by Dr. Seuss. But, by definition, if it’s a known truth that the Lorax is purely fictional, then it’s a known truth that the Lorax doesn’t actually exist. We can be highly confident that if we searched the physical universe there’ll be no naturally evolved real creature we can identify as Dr. Seuss’s Lorax. Even if we found a very similar creature that could talk, if there was no causal link between the two, then the creature would not be “the Lorax,” it would merely be a creature that was very similar to Seuss’s Lorax. But even if you take the position that there is some remote possibility of finding Dr. Seuss’s genuine Lorax somewhere in the universe (perhaps created by an alien grad student who read Dr. Seuss), that mere possibility should not undermine our confidence that it’s highly probable that the Dr. Seuss character is purely fictional and as such does not likely actually exist.

    If we can’t be said to “know” or “prove” straightforward, simple empirical claims such as the Lorax is fictional, and Zeus and God are mythical, then we can’t make sense of claiming to “know” any ordinary empirical claim, such as “the sun is at the center of the solar system.” After all, maybe the claim is false, but some aliens are screwing with our heads convincing us that the claim is true.

    To sum up: if Michael wants to admit we can justifiably believe the positive claim that God is man-made myth–both intellectually and behaviorally–then for the sake of consistency he needs to admit we can justifiably believe that God doesn’t exist–both intellectually and behaviorally.

    So what sense does it make for Michael to be agnostic with regards to the claim God doesn’t exist, but not the claim God is a myth. And even if Michael can jump through explanatory hoops to make sense of such a position–distinguishing behavioral from “intellectual” agnosticism, why does he want to?

    Reed Richter

    • Beelzebud says:

      Just so you know, but Mr. Shermer has never responded to a thread here, ever. Not one time in a years he’s been posting here. The rest of the contributors will engage in discussion, but Shermer posts these things, and I don’t think he comes back until he’s ready to post another monologue.

  68. Liki Fumei says:

    Perhaps some knowledge could flatten some ‘believings’ expressed above taking on Malagueña Salerosa and its origins…

    On the other hand, better to hear it from the virtuous hands of Paco de Lucía than having it played -if they had guessed how to- by some cantina low-profile musicians:

    • tmac57 says:

      I would bet anything that Michael was referring to
      ‘La Malaguena’,written by a Cuban,Ernesto Lecuona, as other comments have mentioned.

      Per Wikipedia:

      Carlos Montoya adapted it for flamenco style guitar, and it was the title track on his 1961 live album, “Malagueña” on the RCA Victor lablel. [5] This recording was influential in the piece becoming a guitar standard, even though it was originally written for piano.

  69. d brown says:

    People may want to find a copy of 1951’s THE TRUE BELIEVER by Eric Hoffer. Its more about politics and mass movements. You can see it working today. People want to be with people that are like them, and hate others.

  70. Kenneth Polit says:

    I don’t “believe” in, well, anything. I don’t “believe” in evolution, I accept it because the evidence is compelling to me. I don’t “believe” in god(s)because the evidence is NOT compelling. I reject the god hypothesis.

    The late actor Christopher Reeve once said something I thought was good. “I don’t believe in God, but I behave as if He were watching.” That IMO is a pretty good way to live.

    • Max says:

      Do you believe in gravity or accept it, and what’s the difference?

      • Matthew says:

        Your “belief” is your attitude towards a proposition. You can agree, disagree, or suspend judgment.

      • Max says:

        My “belief” is Bayesian certainty from 0% to 100%. Anything over 50% is “more likely than not.”

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        Yeah, I don’t see a real difference between the two. “Believe” means to accept a proposition as certainly or probably true. “Disblieve” means to reject a proposition as certainly or probably true.

    • tmac57 says:

      It is a well accepted convention to use the word ‘belief’ to mean the same as ‘accept as true’.It does not have to have the baggage of religious faith. I believe that my dog is a Jack Russell Terrier.I don’t have proof of his breeding,but he looks and acts like one,so I accept that it is probably true.I believe that water is a necessary component for human survival.I believe such semantic games are are tiring.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      I don’t agree with you or Reeve that the statement “I don’t believe in God but I behave as if He were watching” provides a good way to live. To guide one’s own behavior as if God were watching requires a certain conception of God, including the idea that God would be watching for a purpose. What purpose? Of course, to reward and punish. Thus, if one’s conception of God happened to include the idea that God would desire aggression against gay people or flying planes into buildings, then if one guided his behavior on the premise that God was watching, it would not be a good way to live. Better to throw out the God concept altogether and start from scratch, using empathy, reason, and social contract theory to guide one’s behavior, regardless of whether anybody is watching you.

  71. Matthew says:

    Dr. Shermer,
    Thank you for your acknowledgment of the importance of Philosophers. All of us who posted appreciate it and thank you for your skepticism and open mind.

    “Major in Philosophy. It is, by far, the most interesting path to poverty.”

  72. frank bath says:

    Are you an a-fairyist or an ag-fairyist, an a-unicornist or ag-unicornist? Do you believe in imaginary creatures or not, and if you don’t do you really have to prove they don’t exist? I can invent a million imaginary things and so can you but we don’t have to be ag about it. Vide Bertrand Russell can tou disprove there isn’t a china teapot orbiting the Earth?

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      I think if somebody asks you to prove that there is not a china teapot orbiting the Earth, you can do more than say “It’s your duty to prove that there is, if you claim that there is.” You could randomly sample orbits about the Earth, find no teapots, generalize to the rest of the orbits, and say “It’s extremely unlikely that there is a china teapot orbiting the Earth.”

      • noen says:

        Which of course proves absolutely nothing.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        I think that the problem here is that “prove” has different meanings, one meaning setting the bar very high and another setting it lower. We can dispense with the word and the concept when discussing God. If you believe you can rationally demonstrate that God exists, then please present your case.

      • noen says:

        My position is the neither theists nor atheists can prove or disprove their claims that god exists or does not exist. “Prove” means what it should mean to any educated and informed modern intellectual, a logical argument.

        What invariably happens though is that ignorant atheists, and most are, seem to think that scientific claims can be proved true through exclusively deductive argument. That is scientism.

        However, arguments of the type “If it is raining the grass will be wet. The grass is not wet, therefore it is not raining.” are valid. They just aren’t examples of proving a negative.

        I don’t think that theists have proved god exists and to the extent they make specific empirical claims for god those claims can be proved or disproved. I also don’t think that atheists have shown god does not exist. Only specific gods. The general case is far more problematic.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        This is a response to noen’s comment of April 19, 2012 at 10:51 am made in response to me.

        Take this argument:
        1. If God exists, then the Holocaust would not have occurred.
        2. But the Holocaust did occur.
        3. Therefore, God does not exist.
        By your definition of “prove,” I have proven that God does not exist. The argument is logical. If you think not, then please show why.

        No, most atheists are not ignorant. Most atheists are knowledgeable about a great number of things. And no, most atheists do not think that scientific claims can be proved true only by deductive argument.

        No, the example you gave about rain IS an example of proving a negative. The argument is a logical argument and the conclusion is a negative assertion. If you disagree, demonstrate why it is not.

        Atheists have rationally demonstrated that “God,” not “god,” does not exist. God is one particular god. I agree with you that the general case is more problematic, but I think it is not insurmountable. Please give an example of a god which you think nobody can rationally demonstrate does not exist or is unlikely to exist.

      • noen says:

        Hi Gary
        Your argument is valid but the conclusion is only true if one accepts premises as true and most theologians would not accept premise 1 as true.

        In my experience most internet atheists are pretty ignorant of philosophy and react with rage at even the most elementary philosophical ideas. This is in stark contrast to most religious folk I have debated who tend to be calmer and less emotionally unstable. But that could be selection bias.

        The example I gave was taken from the wikipedia page on the argument from ignorance and is their example of the type of argument commonly mistaken for “proving a negative”. It is a logically valid contrapositive argument which is *not* the same as arguing from ignorance (proving a negative).

        I’m highly doubtful that atheists have proven God does not exist but I am sure that *you* believe they have. That’s how ideology works. Theodicy is not something that interests me but it is hardly the slam dunk you seem to think it is.

        Fairies, ghosts and angels are lesser beings than gods and we can’t prove they don’t exist. At best we can say there is no reason to believe they exist and the claims they do are unjustified.

        One god which cannot be rationally defended would be the god of string theory. Which even proponents say not only cannot be falsified but that there is no test conceivable that could ever falsify it.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        This is a response to noen’s most recent response to me in this thread on April 20, 2012 at 10:01 am.

        Earlier in this thread you defined “prove” as making a logical argument. I made a logical argument against the existence of God (you said it was valid), therefore I have proven that God does not exist, according to your definition of “prove.”

        You said “..but the conclusion is only true if one accepts premises as true…” and this is false. Given a valid or logical argument, the conclusion is true if the premises are true, regardless of whether the premises are accepted as true by any particular person. I agree with you that most theologians would not accept my premise #1 as being true, but they should, and I am prepared to claim that their god would be guilty of irresponsible design and bystander apathy if he did allow the Holocaust.

        I think your comparison of atheists and religious folk is based on selection bias; my experience has been just the opposite. Neither of us is drawing from random samples of the two groups.

        I don’t know why you would be highly doubtful that atheists have proven that God does not exist, when you have agreed that the argument I (an atheist) presented was a logical argument and your definition of “prove” was making a logical argument. If you’d like to dispute the truth of premise #1, then please try to do it. Yes, I think that the consideration of theodicy is a slam dunk. If you do not think so, then please explain why.

        I agree with your idea that it is best to consider and dispute each god individually. However, a fairly good case against all gods can be made by using sampling theory.

      • noen says:

        HI again Gary:
        Earlier in this thread you defined “prove” as making a logical argument. I made a logical argument against the existence of God (you said it was valid), therefore I have proven that God does not exist, according to your definition of “prove.”

        No, that is not true. A false *conclusion* can nevertheless be the result of a valid argument.

        “Given a valid or logical argument, the conclusion is true if the premises are true, regardless of whether the premises are accepted as true by any particular person.”

        But the truth of the premises are exactly what people disagree about. We can only say that our conclusion is justified if the argument is a valid argument AND if it’s premises are true. If people simply will not accept your premise there is little you can do. Maybe they are right and you are wrong. Maybe you can prove that your premise *is* true. Maybe you are the one with the immovable belief, maybe they are. Or maybe you can expose your opponent’s inconsistencies so that at least bystanders will not be taken in.

        But the one thing you can never do is bully people into accepting your premises over the internet. Ain’t gonna happen.

        “If you’d like to dispute the truth of premise #1, then please try to do it.”

        Free will. Creating free moral actors is a greater good than creating mindless slaves. No god can create a free slave any more than she could create a square circle.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        This is a reply to noen’s reply to me of April 22, 2012 at 1:34 pm.

        You said “A false *conclusion* can nevertheless be the result of a valid argument.” Well, of course it can, but that was not in your definition of “prove.” In that definition you only required a valid argument; you did not require a valid argument with a true conclusion.

        Of course people may have disagreements about the truth of premises, but this does not correct your statement about arguments. To repeat, you said “..but the conclusion is only true if one accepts premises as true…” That is wrong! The conclusion is true only if the premises are all true and the argument is a valid one. Given that you are so gung ho about pointing out the mistakes of others on this blog, it would behoove you to acknowledge a mistake when you make one.

        I don’t bully people; I try to persuade them with reason. Will I stop doing this over the internet? Ain’t gonna happen.

        Your free will objection to premise #1 does not work. Any all-knowing all-powerful god could create moral actors with limited free will such that they could not choose to physically harm other moral actors. Also, bystander apathy is an additional problem to irresponsible design for the alleged God when considering premise #1. But aside from those two points, please explain why you think creating free moral actors is a greater good than creating mindless slaves. Would the freedom of rapists to commit rape be a greater good than the freedom from suffering for rape victims?

      • Loonyyy says:

        Actually, a god could create a “Free Slave”. If he’s all knowing, and he creates the being with all knowledge of the being of it and the world he’s placing it into, it follows that he knows the results to an infinite time frame. He knows how things will act.

        The man has free will, and acts as he likes: BUT, the way he acts is conditional on his nature. Hence, he’s a “Slave” to a predetermined destiny from the view of an omnipotent god, but he’s an agent in that destiny, with a part in it’s outcome, which is unknown to him.

        From his perspective, he’s free. From the perspective of all knowledge, he’s not.

        More to the point, to a person who believes in a creator god: God created Charles Manson, God created Stalin, God created Mao, Hitler, Bush II, Osama bin Laden, Pol Pot, Castro, Kruschev.

        He’s created, in knowledge of their outcomes, every evil person who’s existed. So he’s either Malevolent, or all knowing, or not the creator AND not all powerful.

        If there’s no possibility for the God as defined (Omnibenevolent, Perfectly Just, Perfectly Merciful, Omniscient, Omnipotent), if any of his properties violate the others, it follows that that premise of a God is false.

        You can try to define “Creating something with free will is a greater good than the evil of that person causing the deaths of 6 million others”, but that’s not a standard which any human would agree with. That’s why we deprive murderers of their freedom.

        If he tosses it all up and creates people of random personality, he’s not acting anymore, and he’s not worthy of worship, and he’s violating the properties he’s meant to have. Which illustrates the point: We made this God, he didn’t make us.

  73. Bobbler says:

    Sorry, but i disagree on the definitions..   The root of the problem is that the definition of an atheist in the common vernacular, oddly accepted by many atheists, makes no sense..  

    On the definition of atheism versus agnosticism..  The dictionary definition of atheist has been turned into something stupid (explained below)..  To say atheists deny or disbelieve, are obviously fundy wording..  I endeavor to promote positive atheism, so I am not promoting in your face atheism..   I am suggesting that we atheists have pride in what we are, and not run away from our label because of the efforts of fundies to demonize the word..   This would be like Jews, blacks, or women abandoning a basic descriptive word for what they are, because hate groups demonized the term in the common vernacular..   I “believe” atheists are the only group that would do this, stemming from lack of a cohesive community..   

    The term atheist has been turned into something stupid, and more stupid is that many atheists have bought into the BS..  This is nothing less than a successful assault by fundies demonizing our very name..  This is not a place to be polite or back down..  There is no way I can see to apply positive atheism here, because this is a direct attack..  

    The problem is semantics..   Atheists do not believe, was changed to say atheists “believe” (IE: believe there is no god)..   Since the very defining thing about an atheist is lack of belief, why in the world would we run with a definition that says we believe?    Possibly there may be some confusion because atheists really do believe there is no god, but in the weak casual sense of the word exactly like “I believe I’ll have another beer.”   The strong sense, and very defining thing about an atheist is lack of belief in the first place..   This is pretty obvious fundies have succeeded in changing the perceived definition into something that doesn’t make sense.. 

    The agnosticism definition makes more sense to apply to people who have realistic doubts, not for people who have no serious doubts (other than the philosophical axiom you can’t prove a negative)..  

    I hate that I find myself disagreeing with so much..  The only behavioral this I can see is both atheists and agnostics objecting to having religion forced onto them..   

    As for strong atheists; I believe (that word again), that the aggressive atheists I might call negative atheists (because they seem to go out of their way to insult believers), like to call themselves strong atheists..  I dislike that that so many seem to be trying to stick the atheist label on this particular type of atheist..   

    • Matthew says:

      “The problem is semantics.. Atheists do not believe, was changed to say atheists “believe” (IE: believe there is no god).. Since the very defining thing about an atheist is lack of belief … ”

      There seems to be a lot of confusion about the meaning of the word “belief.” I hope this clears it up:

      Belief is an attitude towards a proposition. You can agree, disagree, or suspend judgment. I am an atheist and I believe in lots of things. There are many propositions that I assent to for a variety of justifications. Atheists deny the proposition that god exists. That is logically equivalent to saying that they accept the proposition that god does not exist.

      • quen_tin says:

        I agree with Bobbler’s comment: agnosticism is not just “you can’t prove a negative” but a distinct position, and that the behavioral vs intellectual approach is not the best way to tackle these distinctions (as explained in my previous comments).

        @Matthew: I think belief has a stronger meaning in the case of religious faith. It means: holding a speculative proposition for true. In that sense, “not believing in” is not the same as “believing the contrary of”, and probably most atheists do not consider themselves as believers.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      You ask “Why in the world would we run with a definition which says we believe?” Because a sizable proportion of those who call themselves atheists do in fact believe that God definitely or probably does not exist! If a person lacks a belief in God, then either 1) He believes that God definitely does not exist. 2) He believes that God probably does not exist. 3) He hasn’t decided whether God probably does or doesn’t exist. 4)He has never heard of “God,” doesn’t understand the word, or doesn’t understand the concept. I don’t have a big problem with defining atheism as a lack of belief, but in doing this you hide the real differences in the underlying belief structure.

  74. Joe says:

    You really can’t have much of a meaningful discussion about the existence of god unless/until you define god. There are as many variants as stars in the sky, and each one is heart felt and customized. The god meme is – and always has been – on a path toward ever less definition. The greatest argument in favor of atheism is the recognition that between all the earnest believers, there is nothing approaching consensus about the very definition of god. And these are the believers! I say all the believers ought to go away and caucus – and come back to the discussion if/when they have a unified definition of god. Wait for it…!

    • Max says:

      Do you believe in consciousness?

      • tmac57 says:

        What are you directing your question to?

      • Max says:

        The idea that we need a precise definition of something to believe it exists.

      • tmac57 says:

        That’s a nice illustration of your point.

      • Joe says:

        This is no refutation of my point. Consciousness is neither ill defined or in doubt. A definition of god is no semantic game, it is the core of the issue. A quick review of the research will prove that there is nothing like unanimity among the believers about the ‘true nature of god’ – yet we argue the reality of god as if it was an apple in a bowl.

      • Max says:

        What’s the accepted definition of consciousness, and why is there any debate over which creatures are conscious?

      • Joe says:

        Religion is characterized by multiple mutually exclusive god concepts while consciousness is a spectrum phenomenon – it exists in degrees – so it perhaps does make sense to wonder whether a single person – or various people – or animals – or other living things – possess ‘it,’ however you’d like to define ‘it’. Articulating this discussion is ample evidence of exactly the kind of human capacity we call consciousness, so surely we can agree that consciousness exists – at least in this narrow sense, whether or not we say we ‘believe’ in it. I think we can also agree that there are non-human degrees of sentience (ex: from apes to starfish) as well. But what I’m specifically poking at is the nonsequiter in the religious view: multiple mutually exclusive positive (yet unscientific) claims of an eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, supernatural deity and the complete lack of hard evidence for such a deity – or even a means for judging one such deity more or less real than any other. When even the earnest believers fail – between themselves – to judge the relative and/or absolute authenticity of these claims, far be it for the non-believers to attempt to disprove them. While believers jointly, willingly suspend reason and discernment to maintain their parallel fictions, non-believers, skeptics and the reasoned become a convenient common enemy. Since believers are all so convinced of the truth of their god, pray tell, what EXACTLY is it you believe in and how are we to know that your notion is real versus any competing god notion? It’s unanswerable – even by the most fervent believer – because our gods are now perfectly personal and subjective. We customize them to perfectly suit our emotional, spiritual needs, and so they become as real to us as the sun in the sky and love in our hearts. No one can convince someone who has felt love that it does not exist.

      • Bill Minuke says:

        I’m thinking of something, a B-logan is what I call it. You believe it B-logans right? Or are you agnostic about B-logans? Or perhaps you are the “A” word about B-logans. You don’t need a definition about B-logans, we all know what they are.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      I disagree. There is considerable consensus on the definition of “God.” I think this can be demonstrated through surveys, interviews, and focus groups. This “God” is the god of the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These groups agree on the basic concept, but disagree on the details of God’s nature and some of his actions in history.

      It might even be possible to produce a dictionary of definitions of “gods” among which “God” would be listed on the first line of the first page.

      • Joe says:

        Now we’re getting somewhere: a taxonomy of gods! You’ve begun with an “Abrahamic” (vs non-Abrahamic) dichotomy, then added the “Big 3″ variants… this is merely a beginning. Build out the taxonomy by introducing additional qualities and characteristics. Is your god loving and kind and nurturing or angry and vengeful and jealous – or both? Does your god intercede in daily human affairs or stand back to watch his watch run? Did he send his son through a virgin to recast his covenant with mankind and absolve us of our sins… or are we still waiting for a messiah… other than the prophet Mohammed? Saying there’s broad agreement about the definition of god – even the ‘basic concept (especially between Christianity, Islam and Judaism!) is totally out of step with reality. God is love? God is light? God is… anything someone wants god to be… which is to say ANYTHING at all.

      • Max says:

        The lowest common denominator is that God is the intelligent creator of the universe. That’s Deism. Other faiths add more attributes: God is the source of morality, answers prayers, makes tides go in and out, etc. The more that’s piled on, the easier it is to disprove, as in showing that intercessory prayer doesn’t work.

      • tmac57 says:

        How about a God that is or does no more nor less than what each believer of that God can conceive? A universal God that only exists for those who believe in it,and only to the degree that they believe? A God who has exactly the properties,characteristics,abilities,and goals that the individual believer accepts as true? A God who is non-existent to those who do not believe,and may or may not exist for those who don’t know for sure?
        Chance the Gardener

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        This is a response to tmac57’s comment of April 20, 2012 at 9:03 pm.

        Your comment is very hard to understand.

        “God” (with a capital “G”) has a consensus meaning within our society. The “lowest common denominator” for the term, as Max puts it, can be discovered by empirical means.

        It can be reasonably demonstrated that “God,” the god believed in by most Jews, Christians, and Muslims, almost certainly does not exist. Might other gods exist? They might. If you’d like to describe a hypothetical god which you think might exist, go ahead. We’ll examine it rationally.

      • tmac57 says:

        My comment was designed as a way of making the reader think about their personal view of the concept of ‘God’,as opposed to what I believe,because I see ‘God’ as a construct that people shape to fit their view of reality.
        I do not believe in any kind of god.
        Chance the gardener was a composite of what other people believed him to be too.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        Actually, we could find out how most people (even most Jews, Christians, and Muslims) define “God” through an empirical approach. Simply ask a large sample of people who believe in God to check the descriptors (in a long list)which are part of their definition.

        What I am saying is that if we were to do this, we would find that 90%+ of JCMs would endorse a subset of these descriptors. I have talked with hundreds of believers and asked them what was their definition of “God” and there is a consensus, a common denominator, as Max says.

      • Joe says:

        I would love to build a taxonomy of gods through just such broad-based survey, the branches in the tree separating at a decision point or attribute for god. But a “least common denominator” definition of god is not worth much for conflict resolution because it’s the differences that drive conflict. My point above about asking believers to reconcile their disparate beliefs essentially acknowledges a common ground (LCD) god concept: At some very basic level, believers agree in the existence of god, so who better to work out the details? Certainly the atheists among us are no better situated than the believers to refine the very definition of god. And if the believers can’t get it done – with all their earnest faith and all the modern tools of evidentiary science – then what hope is there that such a definition can be had? I contend none. The proliferation of god concepts belies the objective truth that there is no actual god in existence. And really, how reasonable is the belief that billions of people feel their god, hear their god, talk to their god, receive direct action from their god – yet claim that this god is supernatural and not subject to evidence and the laws of nature or science – and their god varies over time (within one person and throughout their lifetime) and varies from the gods of others (and still more gods are being invented by religious entrepreneurs even today). How likely is it that Bronze Age claims were actually true yet remain unverifiable with modern methods? The foundation of religious tolerance is the recognition that your brand of “god crazy” is no more provable than mine – which, in Cold War parlance, is classic detente. What concerns me is that, like the Cold War, our national and international religious insanity is moving from detente to mutually assured destruction. The cold religious war is going hot. And THIS is why it’s imperative that atheists stand up and call BS on all god stories. Coddling or even tolerating our own American “god crazies” while denigrating those in faraway lands is ideologically untenable. We must be prepared to bring reasoned atheism to even our most intimate relationships – our families and friends – with compassion. Decoupling from a lifetime of myth can be stressful and painful. What the believers need is our understanding, not our criticism. They will flee from criticism back into the arms of the faithful.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        This is a response to Joe’s response to me of April 24, 2012 at 1:21 pm.

        No, I disagree with you that a consensus definition of god is not worth much for conflict resolution… All conflict resolution must begin with a foundation of agreement and then move from that.

        Actually I think the atheists among us are better situated than the believers to help refine the definition of god. The believers are so close to the trees that they don’t see the forest. The definition of gods can be done through the cooperation of believers and nonbelievers.

        No, I don’t think that the proliferation of god concepts belies the truth that there is no actual god in existence. Some people may be right and others may be wrong. We just know that they all cannot be right since many concepts are contradictory or in conflict.

        Yes, I agree with you that it is unlikely (not impossible) that any of the gods so far conceived by humans actually exists.

        I agree that we need to be prepared to bring reasoned atheism to others, even our loved ones. But I think that believers need not only our understanding but our gentle and sometimes subtle criticism. The approach to any believer must be devised after a “readiness” analysis.

  75. Suri k says:

    We might never be able to prove or disprove the existence of god …but if there is evidence and we can overwhelmingly prove that the human brain has this tendency to create supernatural agents then isnt the god/gods debate absurd? I mean if science can prove this or has proven it without any doubt , if god’s origin is in our brain then there is no god out there , then you believe in god because you deny the science , or because you want to and the god debate would be or is as absurd as the unicorn debate.

  76. Max says:

    You can quantify belief with the de Finetti game.

    Basically, if you have X% certainty in something, that means if you had to choose between winning $1 million if that something is true or winning $1 million if you draw a red marble out of a bag where X% of marbles are red, then both choices should sound equally good.

    So if you have 1% certainty that God exists, that means 99% certainty that God doesn’t exist. Certainty over 50% means something is more likely than not. Does that count as belief, or is there a higher threshold?

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Atheist = 0-49%, Agnostic = 50%, Theist = 51-100%. Very simple and clear.

      • Max says:

        That’s how I look at it, but it seems some people think Atheist = 0% and “belief” has to be far from 50%. But beliefs can range from weak near 50% to strong at 0% or 100%.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        I asked a Lutheran minister friend of mine “In your opinion, what is the probability that God exists on a scale from 0 to 100?” He said “98.” So, even believers can vary considerably on this continuum.

      • Max says:

        Try the de Finetti game with him. Would he rather win $1 million if God exists or if he draws a red marble out of a bag with 49 red marbles and only 1 blue marble?

  77. Robert Corfield says:

    Consciousness is a shared experience (unless you are all zombies) so we all know what we’re talking about when discussing whether consciousness exists. But if people have different ideas about what God is then arguments about whether God exists will fall or stand depending on what characteristics are ascribed to God. There’s no point arguing that an all powerful God is contradictory for example if the person who wants to convince you of the existence of God does not believe in an all-powerful God. I can believe in consciousness but I can’t believe in something if I don’t know what it is I’m expected to believe in.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Most Jews, Christians, and Muslims will agree with the statement “God is a super person who created our world and who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good.”

      We can use scientific surveys to understand the distribution of god concepts in the population.

  78. Evelyn Haskins says:

    Michael Shermer,

    I am disappointed in you.

    How can anyone prove something that has never been defined.
    Speak to any number of people who profess a belief in “God”, and none of them will be able to even begin to describe just what “God” is? (The best I can ever get is “You must have faith”. I don’t know how anyone can have a ‘faith’ relative such an ill-defined concept.

    It would be absolutely foolish then to say that you beleve in “God” — an undefined ‘je ne sais quoi” that is no more than a belief in the mind of the believer.

    Therefore ATHEIST (someone who does not believe in Gods) makes perfect sense. Agnostic refers to wishy-washy thinking. Or even a belief –“It doesn’t make sense but I don’t want to go to Hell.”

    Why people are afraid to say simply “I cannot believe that!” I’ll never understand

    Well dur! — I also don’t believe in Hell, Heaven, Purgatory, or Limbo. (You never know, I MIGHT change my mind — given some proof of existence or a necessity of the concept to explain any phenomenon.
    But you’d better be sure that you know what you are proving.)
    I don’t believe in Plogistin either, or Martians, or The Rainbow Serpent or that the Earth is supported on tortoises’ or Atlas’s back.

    And so on and so on and son on. As a matter of fact I would presume that there is an infinity of things that I do NOT believe.

    I believe that I’ll go make myself another coffee :-)

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Actually, there is a pretty common definition of “God” accepted by most Jews, Christians, and Muslims. See my earlier post.

      • noen says:

        Jews, Christians, and Muslims are not all religions. In fact they are usually grouped together as being more or less the same religion. They all descended from Abraham and are all therefore classified as Abrahamic faiths. Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same god.

        Claiming that the only definition of god, or of religion, is the one that Jews, Christians, and Muslims agree on is a typical atheist strawman.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        Yes, that’s what I said — Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same god. No, I did not claim that this god is the only one which is worshiped in the world. Of course, it isn’t, and most atheists acknowledge this. But the number of people in the world today worshiping this particular god is greater than the number of people worshiping any other particular god. Now that we’ve demonstrated that belief in this god (the Abrahamic god) is not rationally justified, then we can move on to the other ones.

      • Bill Minuke says:

        It seems to me,(1) that you don’t want to define God, yet you want to shift the burden of proof on to the atheist to prove that a god or gods don’t exist and then (2) you throw in the gods of many religions as a further obfuscation.

        There is nothing to prove since you have an incoherent idea. God as a label is meaningless. ( I disagree with Gary Whittenberger, about consensus, there are thousands of religions, sects and cults that disagree on what a god or gods are. There is no consensus. Yes mostly all monotheists will agree that there’s a god, but their detailed accounts of what that means will differ.)

        “Claiming that the only definition of god, or of religion, is the one that Jews, Christians, and Muslims agree on is a typical atheist strawman.”
        From your statement are you suggesting that we prove ( or disprove) all possible god hypotheses? A somewhat of a hefty task given that you won’t even define one. Or are you just showing your prejudices against atheists?

        I find your prejudices distasteful, so I would encourage you to overcome them. You don’t need them, your (non prejudiced) opinions are interesting and your reasoning mostly sound, so I enjoy your contributions. What need is there of ad hominems ?

        Also, your characterization of Gary Whittenbergers posting as a strawman is incorrect. A strawman misrepresents an opponents position. He was advancing his belief, whether that’s right or wrong or somewhere in between is irrelevant. There’s no strawman here.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        Bill, I agree with most of what you post here, but I want to focus on one point. I claim that there is a consensus among Jews, Christians, and Muslims on the definition of “God.” Of course, their detailed accounts differ, but their general accounts do not. I’ll give you a definition which most of them accept – God is “the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good, and supremely authoritative creator of the universe.” Take a random sample of a thousand JCMs and ask them if they agree or disagree with that definition (even give them a third option – “can’t decide). I’ll wager that 90%+ of them will agree with the definition.

  79. Evelyn Haskins says:

    I must aplogise for my prevous post — I was responding emotionally rather than rationally.

    Rationally “atheism” refer to “lack of belief in gods”. Or even a decision to not worship gods.

    It has nothing to do with any knowedge as to whether gods do or do not exist.

    Any more than a juryman who decides for an innocwnt verdict KNOWS whether or not the accused in guilty — he just ‘believes’, on the evidence presented, that the accused is innocent.

    An agnostic on the other hand acknowedges resonably doubt and therefore either declines to vote or votes to acquit the accused.
    (Or IF there is no god, then it doesn’t matter whether I worshipped him/her or not, so I might as well worship, as I’ve nothing to lose if there is no god, but a lot to lose if there IS THAT particular god. Good Grief, just imagine opting to be a Roman Catholic and discovering that Yahweh was exclusively Jewish and hated Roman Catholics! Or was Protestant or Buddhist, or Hindu or whatever! The mind Boggles!)

    As an atheist we do NOT declare “there is no god”, rather we state quite simply that as far as we are concerned we do NOT believe that gods exist. (And that includes gods of all and every religion.)

    Christians might be amused to learn that early Christians were known as atheists (Fox) since they disbelieved in “the Gods” of Greece or Rome or Germanic Europe, or Celtic, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc, etc.

    I suppose that early Christians were feared as Communists!!!

  80. ed says:

    I’m universalist, I think ‘god’ is the universe (and infinite) but not a personification. He won’t answer my prayers etc.

    Also I think evolution and creationisms the same thing, one is just looked at in terms of a blink of an eye(7 days) and the other over the course of eons.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Ed, you are misusing the word “god.” The commonplace meaning of “god” is a super person. The universe is not a person, and so you should not use the word “god” to refer to it. Have an awe and appreciation for the universe if you wish, but please don’t call it ‘god.” This is bad for communication and understanding.

      Also, evolution and Creationism are not the same thing, not even close.

  81. Ivan Torres says:

    Well, the most important point here is that you shouldn’t expect bands in Mexican restaurants to play Malagueña. :-)

    Malagueña’s lyrics are in Spanish but that doesn’t mean anyone who speaks Spanish or comes from a Spanish speaking country will know it or that musicians know or will choose to learn to play it.

    Malagueña is part of a larger composition “Suite Andalucia”, and both Andalucia and Malaga are regions of Spain, a whole different country from Mexico. The bands you describe are going to be playing Mexican music or mostly mariachi music, a genre unto itself interpreted with a specific ensemble with various string instruments, violins and trumpets.

    It’s something similar to that we wouldn’t expect all bands in US Southern Food restaurants to know Danny Boy. Yes, it’s in English and yes the US was settled by Brits, but those bands would play bluegrass or other southern regional music and not know or play Irish music. :-)

  82. Charles Schisler says:

    Shermer states repeatedly, as do many others, that one cannot prove a negative. This is absurd. I he were here now – on the question of whether or not there is a normal, full-sized elephant in my garage – I can assure you that I can prove the negative far easier than either of us could prove the positive.
    And on the question of a multi-universe – is this somehow similar to a three-wheeled unicycle! How many Everythings do you imagine there are?
    Charles Schisler

    • Max says:

      You can’t prove a negative existential in an infinite search space, e.g. “There’s no elephant in a garage anywhere in the universe.”
      Unless it’s truly illogical, like a 10-meter diameter sphere inside a 1-meter diameter sphere.

      In multiverse theory, “universe” doesn’t mean everything that exists.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        I agree with your point about the multiverse. On the other hand, if God is everywhere (as most believers assert), then he is in my garage right now. This leads to an argument.
        1. If God exists, he is everywhere at once.
        2. If a person is everywhere at once, then he is in my garage.
        3. But there is nobody in my garage right now.
        4. Therefore, God does not exist.
        Does this work?

      • Max says:

        Yeah, if something is claimed to exist or hold true everywhere, you can falsify it with one counterexample. Think cell phone dead zones. But how would you test whether God is in your garage, by praying “Can you hear me now?”

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        That’s a good question. My challenge would be to demonstrate that there is no other person in my garage right now. I suppose that I couldn’t be absolutely certain about that, but I could be very confident about it. Part of being a person is being visible and moving in a particular way. I don’t see anything in my garage which moves as persons do. That might be a good approximation.

        On the other hand, I think it is actually easier to demonstrate that God is not in my garage (the doors are closed). I would say “God, if you are here, please create a zebra out of this piece of dust right now.” If a zebra suddenly appeared, I’d be inclined to think that God was in my garage. If a zebra did not appear, I’d be inclined to think that God was not in my garage and that he does not exist at all. But somebody might reply “But God doesn’t need to comply with your request!” My response would be “If God exists, he doesn’t need to comply with my request, but he would comply with it because he is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good. A perfectly good person would not deny my request since my only motive is to discover the truth.”

      • Bill Minuke says:

        You’re logic is fautly.

        first error:
        First you make a claim about God (step one) then you start talking about “person” (step two).

        second error: (assume first error is corrected,ie if God is everywhere then he is in my garage)
        If God is everywhere, and you can’t “see”,”hear”,”smell”,”taste”,”touch”,”tricorder”, etc. or independently determine that He is everywhere, by what basis do you claim he is not in your garage?

        (PS Not commenting on your premise or conclusion, just commenting on the logic.)

      • Bill Minuke says:

        Correction: Your not “You’re”.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        The transition from step #1 to step #2 could be made more smoothly, I suppose, by including step #1.5 — God is a person. But, to me this is an obvious understanding from the pronoun “he” in step #1.

        I may not be understanding your second point. However, I cannot test everywhere, but I can test my garage. If there is no person in my garage, then God is not in my garage. And if God is not in my garage, then God is not a person who is everywhere. Thus, this god does not exist.

      • Bill Minuke says:

        To Gary Whittenberger

        Elaborating on my second point.

        The assertion that “God is everywhere” is taken as the premise of the argument.(Thus, we’ll accept the premise for the purposes of the argument; we may dispute the validity of the premise later, but let’s see where the premise takes us.)

        Assuming the “truth” of the premise, that God is everywhere, there is a problem of detection because we don’t see Him everywhere, so how do we detect Him? If we cannot detect Him everywhere, then it is unlikely that we will be able to detect him in a particular place ( a smaller “piece” of everywhere). Restating this, if He is everywhere and we can’t detect him, then we won’t be able to detect him in a “subset” of everywhere, i.e. the garage.

        I think I would go this route:

        1. If God exists, He is everywhere, perfect and all knowing.
        2. Since God is so large some parts of God do not know what other parts of God are doing, due to the limitation of the speed of light. Therefore, God is not all knowing.
        3. If God is not constrained by the Law that he created, to limit light to a particular speed, then he is not perfect, because He must violate the laws of nature that He created ( if he was perfect he could create laws that He doesn’t need to violate).
        4. If God is outside of space and time then he is not everywhere in this universe but rather nowhere and thus does not exist in this universe.

        OK These will not convince the “True Believers” but I think they are fun. Please feel free to point out problems you see.

      • Gary Whittenberger says:

        This is a response to Bill Minuke’s response to me on April 24, 2012 at 2:59 am.

        Yes, it is legitimate to accept as a premise “God is everywhere” because that is what most JCMs believe to be true. If God is everywhere, he should be detectable in my garage. But he is not.

        I see a problem in the first step of your argument where you associate the feature “perfect” to God. Perfect in what way? It is too general to be useful, and thus step #3 also suffers.

        I don’t think that the idea of God being outside of time makes any sense. God would have to be a person who does nothing, since if you are doing anything at all, this is in time. Most believers do not go along with this idea of God being outside of time. They think that God actually does things.

        I think your argument should also end with a conclusion – Therefore, God does not exist.

  83. Canman says:

    The late Martin Gardner was, surprisingly, not an aithiest or agnostic. If I remember correctly (a big if!), he once wrote that he was a dieist, because he didn’t want to be a fence sitting agnostic. I, myself, have a barcolounger perched up there with a cupholder and a pocket for the TV remote.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Actually, Martin Gardner claimed to be a fideist. He claimed to have no good reasons to believe in God, but chose to believe in him anyway. Although I have a great deal of respect for Gardner, I think he simply had the wrong position about this. He never applied that way of thinking to any other topic.

    • tmac57 says:

      Is a “dieist” someone who believes they are going to ‘die’?

  84. Bill Minuke says:

    Discussing God in the vaguest way is pointless. This amorphous God is a creation of apologists reacting to scientific discovery, redefining God so as to fit what we know. This is a God few if any people believe in. ( i.e. He is not the Christian/Jewish god of the Bible who you can go visit on a mountain :Exodus 24. ) Every discovery pushes the goal posts back until He doesn’t live in this universe, is all powerful, yada yada yada, and it’s all ad hoc reactions to reality.

    Discuss the god of your beliefs? That’d be too scary, He might wind up on the scrap heap with Zeus.

    Oh and agnosticism, Really? so you’re agnostic about Zeus too? I contend that you can argue knowledge about things you know exist ( i.e. Is there a marble in the box? Answer: I’m agnostic on this .) But not in things you don’t know exist. You give credence to the reality of an idea by claiming you have no knowledge of it, rather than declaring it is invalid because it is unproven; you have that gnosis, that is unproven. You need to examine the specific god claims and when you do they’ll either be demonstrably false, or you’ll be swayed at least a little about the possibility of the idea. At this point if there’s a small chance that it’s real, I would say OK, be an agnostic, but really, which of todays religions make specific god claims that can bear skeptical scrutiny from impartial investigators; without moving the goal posts, that is?

  85. Syd Foster says:

    All this debate just shows that no consensus will ever be found…. BUT!

    When tmac57 suggested that god is tailored to each person’s beliefs, I think he’s onto something… there’s an idea that WE DON’T EXIST, i.e. our sense of an ego riding “up top” as the person doing or being our lives is an illusion cast up as an afterthought or a summation of all the subsystems in our unconscious…. Sure seems like “I” am here, but “I” am an illusion… body and brain and consciousness is going on, but the “me” is just a fancy bit of footwork to act as a sort of unifying recording or sensing device…. so if each brain can produce a fully functioning sentience, why not a partial god sentience in each of the brains that has a conceptual requirement for it?

  86. Explicit Atheist says:

    While it is true that people who assert something exists have a burden of evidence, I disagree somewhat with Shermer in the sense that I also think the people who believe something doesn’t exist have a similar burden of evidence. I think the word atheist is more accurately utilized to identify people who actively believe there is no god, rather than merely passively not believe. People who passively don’t believe are better labeled with the broader term nontheist. Furthermore, Shermer does make a reference to an evidence basec argument against god in his article that theism is socially and psycologicaly constructed, although he doesn’t bother to get into any details. And that is the weakness with putting the burden of evidence exclusively on other side, it frees you from having to think and argue, and it blocks you from changing anyone else’s mind. So I think Shermer is an atheist, rather than a nontheist, but he is a hidden atheist, he isn’t allowing his atheism to shine through, he is hiding his atheism behind his skepticism and his ‘I don’t believe’ stance to avoid the extra effort required for a more robust “I believe there are no gods” stance, which is 100% defensible on a straightforward weight of the overall evidence foundation.

  87. Ben says:

    Europeans,born Christians or just seculars doesn`t understand their cultural dependence on Christianity.Mechanically pronouncing “Theism” they mean their kind god.The lack of the god makes the great hole in your Universe.This hole is not in the sphere of an intellect and science but in the moral,emotional and esthetics spheres.
    Born atheist and additionally a bit of the altruist,I don`t feel any humanitarian emptiness without some “god”.Epistemological necessity of god`s existance I don`t see as the physicist.Educate your child as the atheist and believe me: he won`t be the agnostic.