Reconceptualizing Atheism, Introducing “Antibelief” and “Contratheism”

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Over at Atheist Revolution, vjack offered some discussion today about how we talk about belief and nonbelief.  It’s pretty clear what atheism means to those of us who identify with it, but there are a lot of distinctions that go undocumented.  For example, I think most people think that “atheism” means anybody who doesn’t believe in God.  Even in The God Delusion, Dawkins suggests a spectrum of belief and unbelief that is symmetrical.

This conceptualization revolves around God, but I don’t think it illuminates the whole picture.  I think atheism has been made too inclusive of a term in a way that betrays those of us who are true skeptics.  Instead of just thinking of belief and unbelief, we need to also consider antibelief.  This is any assertion or belief against something supernatural.  I think we should refer to this (admittedly small) group as contratheists.  Either assertion is lacking the merit of proof.  The questions vjack posed in today’s post help illuminate this distinction.

Do you believe in God?
Atheist: No.
Contratheist: No.

Is there a God?
Atheist: I doubt it.
Contratheist: No.

This might seem subtle, but it’s an important distinction.  Theism and atheism are not opposites.  Theism and contratheism are opposites.  Atheism is skepticism to either.

Using Dawkins’ model as a guide, I have created a new visual model that I think best shows the spectrum of belief.  (Please click on it to view its full size.)

Contratheism Scale

In other words, I am advocating no longer distinguishing between “weak/negative” atheism and “strong/positive” atheism.  Atheism is atheism, and contratheism is contratheism.

Keep in mind that the size of the spectrum does not reflect the number of people who would be in each section.  Dawkins himself suggested that the number of “7″s (contratheists) would be quite small.  I expect that most “atheists” who have thought about it would agree that they are in the red territory, asserting no beliefs.  Atheists like Dawkins and myself find a God highly improbable, but we would never assert “there is no God.”  (We do live our lives as if there is not a God, but we know that we cannot fully rule out his existence.)

I hope this scale is helpful for illuminating our understanding of different worldview identities.  Please share your feedback!  I think these terms are important to add to the vernacular when distinguishing what people believe or not.  Feel free to share these ideas, but I would appreciate if you can still cite back to me, Zack Ford, and ZackFord Blogs.

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There are 6 Comments to "Reconceptualizing Atheism, Introducing “Antibelief” and “Contratheism”"

  • Will says:

    Thanks for the post, Zack! I really like your new terminology; this is a much-needed clarification I too used to talk about “hard” atheists and “soft” atheists until I realized that I was effectively saying “No no, I’m a GOOD atheist, I’m not like those skeeri bad atheists, not me!” Of course, I also used to call myself agnostic, so this might just have been my gradually developing worldview at work.

    I think one of the steps we need to take first, though, is to nail down which meaning of the word “believe” we’re using. For example, in your first two examples, the difference between atheists and contratheists is posed as one of knowledge and not belief, but in the chart all the different positions are shown in terms of belief. This is largely pedantic of me, but I believe it may be indicative of an underlying difference. For example, when using the more colloquial use of “believe” like I did in the last sentence, I take it more as “operating hunch.” In this sense, actually take the contratheistic position; I “believe” there is not a deity. As you said in your earlier post about the word, though, this use is mostly slang. When it comes to the usual theistic use of “believe,” as in “hold to be truth,” this radically changes how I look at the question. From this point of view, it’s not a question of casual slang but an intellectual one, so I affirm the better-thought-out atheist position.

    In this sense, I think adding a dash of vjack’s terminology to yours will give a yet broader picture; I’d call myself a gnostic atheist and agnostic contratheist.

    On a different tack, I’d also say I hold different positions based on the deity in question. Thus far, I’ve been assuming the question refers to a vague deist notion; when it comes to SPECIFIC gods, I’ll sometimes affirm a hard contratheistic position. For example, I hold that Yahweh, as depicted in the bible, entails many contradictions (by the Epicurean argument). Thus I would say that Yahweh cannot exist, at least, as depicted there.

    Anyway, just wanted to throw in my two bits. How people respond to this question is a very relevant topic, and I believe you’ve contributed a major step to helping people discuss it!

  • ZackFord says:

    I didn’t know how to show it, but in my head of thought of atheism as an infinite regress… that I could be as close to the contratheist line as possible without touching it. I suppose there could be such a thing as “agnostic contratheism,” but I don’t see how it is any different than regular agnosticism. Ultimately, it’s still that idea of 50/50; I just put it on the left because that’s where people normally identify with it. I think that’s why contratheism and atheism get so mixed up though: is the tipping point from agnosticism atheism or contratheism? Symmetrically, it would be contratheism, but I think when most agnostics make that decision, it is because they have acknowledged doubt and skepticism. That’s why I put it in the order that I did.

    In a way, this was a follow up to the “belief” post (http://zackfordblogs.com/2009/06/02/the-word-believe-to-a-non-believer/), and I did assume use of the technical definition, the idea of truth without proof. I, of course, appreciate you pointing out that I had made such an assumption. The clarification is important!

    I hear your point about the observable contradictions, but your qualification “as depicted there” is what I think is significant. I think there are plenty of believers who can be flexible with the specifics of dogma and scripture without compromising their beliefs in the ultimate being. So, your arguments that could quite clearly show ways that Yahweh “cannot exist” would not necessarily nullify a person’s belief, and more importantly, I don’t think would be indicative of antibelief on your part. In other words, your ability to make a solid rational argument is not necessarily contratheistic. Again we deal with subtle semantics, but there is a difference between saying “Yahweh cannot exist” (still atheistic) and “Yahweh does not exist” (contratheistic). Based on what you shared, I don’t think your position changes, though perhaps how convincing your argument is does.

  • vjack says:

    I like this model. It makes sense and helps separate atheism from some of what it is often confused with. I’m bookmarking this for later linking.

  • Robin says:

    There is already confusion between two definitions of atheism:
    * those who lack belief in a god or gods (non-theists)
    * those who believe there are no gods (“contratheists”)

    Contratheists are atheists in both of these common definitions, where the second definition is a narrowly defined subset of the first.

    It seems you would introduce yet another narrow definition:
    * those who are not theists, agnostic atheists, or contratheists

    This new sense of atheist would be the first to exclude contratheists, muddying the waters even more. And to what benefit?

    Personally, I think I’ll go on using “atheist” in the non-theist sense, as “atheist” issues tend to be issues for non-theists in general. (“How should atheists deal with theist relatives trying to indoctrinate their children?”, “We need to combat the stereotype associating atheism with immorality.”, “There ought to be laws protecting atheists from discrimination.”)

    I say “agnostic atheist” above because I consider agnosticism/gnosticism to be on another axis from theism/atheism.

    Theism/atheism is about what you believe.
    Gnosticism/agnosticism is about what you know (or think you know).

    An agnostic can be either a theist or an atheist, and indeed I know agnostics of both stripes.

    agnostic theist: I believe there is a god or gods, but I don’t know that for sure.
    agnostic atheist: I don’t believe there is a god or gods, but I don’t know that for sure.

    Your “contratheist” may well be a preferable term to “hard atheist”, “strong atheist”, or “gnostic atheist” and I have no objection to it. However, introducing a third incompatible defintion of “atheist” seems detrimental to me.

  • ZackFord says:

    Hey Robin, I think I see where some of your confusion is. By this new model, I am indicating that atheists are without ANY belief (one direction of the other). Because contratheists have antibeliefs, they would NOT be considered a subset of that group as they previously have.

    I, too, will use atheist as I have presented here. My goal by distinguishing contratheists was not to suggest it’s what we should be, but to show that it’s definitely what I am NOT.

    I think anybody who talks about “knowing” is at least a little bit foolish. Nobody knows, though some think they do. I think that was vjack’s point when juxtaposing the questions “Do you believe in God?” and “Is there a God?” The second question is absurd because God is not something we can know, it is only something we can believe. For that reason, I think your understanding of agnosticism is off, because technically we would almost ALL be agnostics, when really there is no such thing as “knowing” a belief.

    I recommend you take some time to read Dawkins’ description of agnosticism. He suggests two kinds. The first, Temporary Agnosticism in Practice (TAP), is the idea that there is a definite answer that we don’t know yet, so we must fence-sit until then. His example is the Permian extinction. There is a definite answer for how a mass extinction occurred, but we haven’t unraveled it yet, so we cannot commit to an answer to that mystery yet.

    The other kind he calls Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP), and this refers to questions that can never be answered, no matter how much evidence is gathered. His example of, “Do you see red as I do?” demonstrates how we have to be PAP agnostics because that is a philosophical question we can never answer. So, in order to be agnostic for the question of God’s existence, you must consider that we will never be able to know the answer.

    Dawkins argues that the question of God’s existence is actually a TAP question: either he does exist or he doesn’t, and one day we may know the answer. In the meantime we can look at what evidence we do have and consider the probability. If you believe God is more than 50% probable, then you move over to the believer side, and if you doubt God is even 50% probable, you move to the atheist side.

    My other consideration for agnosticism is that it holds slightly more privilege than atheism. It’s easier to say you’re agnostic, because then people say “well at least she believes a little.” This is similar to the way some people come out as bisexual before they fully come out as gay. It’s easier to be open to all possibilities than to take an unpopular point of view. That is what informed my choice to include it where I did and describe it as “uncommitted.”

  • UNRR says:

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 6/14/2009, at The Unreligious Right

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