Recently, Political comedian and talk show host Bill Maher did the Daily Show to promote his new docu-comedy “Religulous.” A few days later, I read an interesting post on the difficulties of labeling someone an atheist. The basic difficulty is that some people use atheist to mean “does not believe in God” (sometimes called agnosticism) while others mean “believes there is no God.” Allow me to clear this up.
A Theist is a person who believes that one or more gods exist. Christians are theists with respect to the Christian God.
An Atheist is a person who believes that one or more gods does not exist. Richard Dawkins is an atheist with respect to the Christian God.
Now here’s where it gets whacky. Most people think that you’re either religious or you’re an atheist. Atheism is not a dogma the way religions are. Theism, atheism and agnosticism are god-specific positions. Since theists do not agree on the nature of the god they believe in, you can be atheist with respect to one god, a theist with respect to another god and agnostic with respect to third god. Christians are atheists with respect to the Muslim god and vice versa.
Personally, I am an empiricist, which means I form beliefs based on evidence. I do not believe in any particular god because there is no evidence that one exists. Many people say that there is no evidence against the existence of god either, but this is only half right. It depends what god we’re talking about.
Suppose someone believes in a god that interferes with our world based on prayers. If we study people praying for things, we find that there is little or no correlation between praying and getting. Lots of basically good people pray for things and don’t get them; lots of other people don’t pray for things and do get them instead. I am an atheist with respect to this God because we have evidence against this god.
Suppose someone believes in a god that simply created our universe and then sat back and watched. There is no evidence either way with respect to this god; in fact, this god is a purely metaphysical (not empirical) subject. Therefore, I am agnostic with respect to this god. That is, I have no idea whether this god exists – I hold no belief one way or another.
This way of thinking implies that virtually everyone is both an atheist and an agnostic, depending on what god we’re referring to at the time. If you are absolutely convinced that no god of any kind could possibly exist (including the kind that just sits and watches) you’re being just as silly as the people who are convinced that the god they pray too answers by changing their world. That’s not atheism, that’s just a kind of religion we don’t have a name for yet. But we do have a name for people who strongly believe in anything for which they have no evidence: Brainwashed.
I am well aware that most people don’t see it this way, but I find it useful.