Everything’s A God These Days

Question from John:
I’m having difficulty grasping the concept of an “atheist.” Perhaps you can clarify it for me.

The concept of a person who doesn’t have belief in a particular god, or a person who is certain that a particular god doesn’t exist, is quite clear. (For example, a person who doesn’t believe in the Judeo-Christian god, or who is convinced that the Judeo-Christian god doesn’t exist.) That’s different, though, from someone who doesn’t believe in ANY god of any sort.

A person might claim that they are an “atheist” because there is no scientifically-acceptable evidence for ANY god. Fair enough, as long as that person is also agnostic. But, is there really no evidence for any sort of god? Most atheists would challenge the claim that there is no evidence for the existence of dinosaurs in spite of the fact that no (non-feathered) dinosaurs exist today, and in spite of the fact that there is no direct evidence of them. (So-called “dinosaur bones” dug out of the earth aren’t bones at all. They’re stones with impressions or forms that resemble bones.)

Wouldn’t a highly technologically-advanced extraterrestrial meet every criterion for a god, as dictionaries define the word “god”? (Like many English words, the term “supernatural” has multiple definitions. Some popular dictionaries define “supernatural” as defying natural law in principle, while others define it as appearing to, or seeming to, defy natural law. Go ahead and do a survey of dictionary definitions for yourself.) If “appearing to defy natural law” is one popular definition for the term “supernatural,” then technologically-advanced beings have “supernatural” powers and meet any and every definition of a polytheistic god.

Modern, technological humans have “supernatural” powers, too, compared to tribal peoples. We can bring the dead back to life, fly through the air faster than the speed of sound, and vaporize a forest with the push of a button. Could Zeus or Thor do much better? Even if our powers don’t seem fully god-like now, they will be in a few generations. Additionally, is there not ample evidence supporting the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations with technology far superior to our own? We don’t need to see and touch a living dinosaur to accept the reality of their existence. Do we need to make first contact with an extraterrestrial species to accept the reality of their existence, given the data we do have?

Is the claim that there is no evidence for the existence of any sort of god a reasonable justification for being an “atheist.”

Answer by SmartLX:
The more you broaden the definition of a god, the more likely it will include something which exists, because more entities both known and hypothetical fall into the category. Hyper-advanced aliens are one thing, but you talk about counting modern humans as gods, which means you’re taking into account practically any possible use of the word “god”. In a nutshell, atheists do not.

Atheism is literally the absence of theism, which is religious belief in a god figure. You could broaden that too, but belief in humans or belief in aliens doesn’t generally qualify as theism. The ontology of a true “god” is often debated, but enough of its hypothetical qualities are near-universally agreed upon by believers and non-believers alike that they can have a coherent discussion about gods together, and one more or less settled point is that a god does not have a natural origin. As Richard Dawkins wrote, advanced aliens might well appear to be gods, but they wouldn’t BE gods because they would have come about naturally like we did, probably via a process like Darwinian natural selection – unless of course they had a hand in our development, in which case they came about MORE naturally than we did.

To look at this from another angle, consider that if there were no religion, no one would bother to identify as an atheist, any more than the term “abolitionist” persisted in America after slavery was successfully abolished there. Vocal, activist atheism is a reaction to religious faith, and thus concerns itself with the same kinds of gods that people believe in, the gods people worship, and importantly the gods in whose names people act. In other words, theistic gods. Atheists claim that there is no good evidence for the gods which are the subjects of religious faith. This is not redundant or circular because the faithful do not define their gods in terms of atheism. They’ll happily tell you what their gods are like, what they’ve done and what they want from us.

Since you mentioned agnosticism: Most atheists are also agnostic because they do not claim to KNOW there are no gods (as gods are defined above). They will make the positive claim that there’s no available evidence for gods, but absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. Besides, incontrovertible evidence might turn up tomorrow in Guam for all we know.

Incidentally, you completely lost me when you said there’s “ample evidence supporting the existence of extraterrestrial civilisations”. There’s currently no unambiguous evidence at all, just a lot of probability-based arguments along the lines of the Drake equation and the unsupported claims of a community of UFO enthusiasts.

Ask from the Past: What Am I?

“Going by the word alone, an atheist (a-theist) is someone without a theistic belief. That includes deists.”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. I’ll be answering them here in Ask from the Past.)

Question from friendlyagnostic:
I go back and forth between deism and straight up agnosticism, so normally I call myself an agnostic deist (not theist). Most of the time I don’t know and I really don’t care (unless religion is in my face), but when I do think there might be a “higher power”, I think of it in deistic terms. theism makes no sense to me. I would never be arrogant enough to say “I know” or that “I can prove” b/c this is impossible. I consider myself a non-theist. however, according to the defintion on rrs’s website, I am considered an atheist too, just b/c I am not a theist. Is everyone who is not a theist an atheist? Am I, even with my deistic leanings? I honestly want to know……thanks

A deist is not a theist, that much is clear and easy.

If you think there’s a good chance of a deistic god, but you don’t know, then you’re an agnostic deist. That’s pretty clear too. So we just have to work out what else you could be called at the same time.

An atheist by the everyday definition is someone who doesn’t believe in gods of any sort, even deistic gods. That rules you out.

Going by the word alone, though, an atheist (a-theist) is someone without a theistic belief. That includes deists.

Regardless, I couldn’t comfortably call you an atheist without qualification, because the way people understand the word it includes the position of a-deism.

If you really wanted to nail it to the letter, you could say that you’re an atheist but not an a-deist. If I shared your position, though, I wouldn’t bother. I’d just self-identify as an agnostic deist and not worry about whether I was technically an atheist too.


Atheism and Agnosticism

“I consider myself an agnostic atheist.”

Question from Pat:
Can someone be both an atheist and an agnostic?

Yes. I consider myself an agnostic atheist.

An agnostic lacks gnosis, or knowledge of the divine (if any). He or she does not know whether there are any gods. Some agnostics go one step further and think it is impossible to know this.

An atheist lacks belief in any gods. An agnostic, who does not know, may not believe either and therefore be an atheist too. That’s my current position.

On the other hand an agnostic may believe in spite of not knowing, and therefore be an agnostic theist. Most religious folks who don’t claim personal experiences of their gods are in this category.

The only atheists who aren’t agnostics are those who think they know that there are no gods. This is a step further than “strong atheists”, who positively believe there are no gods but don’t claim to know for sure.

Most of the time, however, atheism co-exists with agnosticism.