Atheism, Agnosticism, and Bullshit: Part 4 – Negative-Atheism is a Poor Label

In Part 3 of the “Atheism, Agnosticism, and Bullshit” series of essays, it was demonstrated that the attempt to solve the overlap problem between lack-of-belief atheism and agnosticism by claiming that atheism is about ‘belief’ whereas agnosticism is strictly about ‘knowledge’ will not work if atheism is defined in the negative ‘lack-of-belief’ sense. Indeed, if atheism is defined as a lack-of-belief, and if agnosticism is about not claiming to know that something is the case—which essentially means not having a well-justified belief about it—then, as shown in that essay, the term agnostic-atheist is redundant and unnecessary, and can thus be shaved down via Occam’s Razor to the mere term ‘atheism’. At the same time, if atheism is defined as a lack-of-belief, then the term gnostic-atheist is self-contradictory, for a person cannot both lack a belief about something (atheism) while simultaneously having a well-justified belief about the same thing, which is what the term gnostic means. So either way, as that essay shows, when atheism is defined as a lack-of-belief, there are serious problems that arise from separating, and then combining both atheism and agnosticism in the aforementioned way. Thus, when atheism is defined negatively, this particular way of trying to separate atheism from agnosticism fails.

However, if atheism is defined in the positive sense—namely, as the belief that God does not exist—then the strategy of dividing atheism into the realm of belief and agnosticism into the realm of knowledge could work. Indeed, for in such a case, an agnostic-atheist would be someone who does not claim to know that God does not exist but he believes that God does not exist; additionally, a gnostic-atheist would be someone who both claims to know that God does not exist and also believes that God does not exist. And since both these terms and their definitions are coherent, they could, therefore, serve as legitimate labels for how an unbeliever might wish to label himself. What this also means is that perhaps the term ‘negative lack-of-belief atheist’ thus does have a legitimate place to fit in the spectrum of different unbelieving positions that a person could take, for it could be used in the place of the traditional term ‘agnostic’ to denote someone who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of a God or gods (hereafter just God). And so, under this new scheme, a negative-atheist would be someone who neither believes nor disbelieves that God exists (what many people today take to be the definition of agnosticism), while an agnostic-positive-atheist would be someone who believes but does not claim to know that God does not exist; furthermore, a gnostic-positive-atheist would be someone who both believes and who claims to know that God does not exist (and note that similar terms could be used for the theist as well).

Now, even though this new labeling scheme of negative-atheist, agnostic-positive-atheist, and gnostic-positive-atheist is coherent, the new question becomes: Does this new labeling scheme really overcome the issue that negative lack-of-belief atheism is conflated with agnosticism? And even if it does, is this new labeling system better than the more traditional system of simply using the terms theist, agnostic, and atheist to describe the various positions that a person can take concerning the issue of God’s existence?

Let us tackle each of these questions in turn.

Overwriting the Conflation Issue

First, note that the above solution does not really negate the force of the conflation issue between agnosticism and negative-atheism—the conflation issue being that negative-atheism is really just a different way of describing what many people take to be a position of agnosticism—but rather, this solution actually proves that the conflation issue is true, for the above solution merely removes the term agnosticism and replaces it with the term negative-atheism to describe a person who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of God. The definition remains the same, but the label that is linked to that definition is simply being changed. Thus, the unbeliever, in this case, is not denying the overlap between negative-atheism and a certain understanding of the term agnosticism, but rather, he is saying that what most people take to be agnosticism should actually be termed as negative lack-of-belief atheism. So, in essence, the unbeliever who is using this move is tacitly arguing that it is better and more appropriate to attach a label of negative-atheism to the definition of neither believing nor disbelieving in the existence of God (lacking a belief) then it is to attach the label of agnosticism to that definition.

Now, the fact of the matter is that such a “redefinition” strategy could work. Indeed, technically-speaking, rather than having a system where a person is labeled as a theist (someone who believes that God exists), or an atheist (someone who believes that God does not exist), or an agnostic (someone who neither believes nor disbelieves that God exists), it would be coherent to have a system where a person could be labeled as a gnostic-theist, an agnostic-theist, a negative-atheist, an agnostic-positive-atheist, or a gnostic-positive-atheist. But while the latter labeling system is coherent, the second question now must be answered: which of these is the better labeling system? Indeed, which of these labeling schemes is the best system for describing the various positions that a person could take about the God question?

The Issue with ‘Agnostic / Gnostic Atheism’

Before delving directly into the matter of which labeling scheme is the best one to use to describe the various positions about God that a person could hold, it is appropriate to first tackle an important issue regarding the labels of gnostic-atheism and agnostic-atheism. And indeed, there is a serious issue with these labels; an issue which stems from how the term ‘knowledge’ is defined.

Consider that while it is easy to claim that atheism and agnosticism deal with the separate dimensions of belief and knowledge respectively, the fact is that trying to accurately define the term knowledge is a thorny philosophical issue. For example, and as previously mentioned in the essay immediately before this one, some individuals take knowledge to be a justified true belief whereas others take it to be a warranted true belief. Even more importantly, in daily life we often construe knowledge—at least in the case of non-basic beliefs—as just being a belief which is strongly justified with evidence and argumentation, and which we thus hold with a firm conviction. So, for instance, most people would hold that a belief which is beyond a reasonable doubt would count as knowledge. Indeed, if, for example, a criminal was found guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, then other people, in such a case, would rightly claim to know that the criminal is a murderer. They would not just claim to believe it to be the case, but they claim to know it to be the case precisely because it is a belief which is beyond a reasonable doubt. So this is a common-sense understanding of knowledge. And yet this also means that, for all practical purposes, we could claim to know something, and yet, later on, we could have that knowledge overturned based on new information and evidence. This would, for example, occur when a criminal who we knew was guilty of a crime is suddenly known to be innocent due to the consideration of new and persuasive evidence, such as DNA testing. So, on a common-sense level, people often legitimately and reasonably claim to know that something is the case, even if that claim might later be shown to be mistaken. And the reason that this fact is important is because it shows that what we claim to know can be mistaken, and yet we would still have been rational in claiming that we knew it even if we were wrong; and this, in turn, shows us that when we claim to know that something is the case, we believe it strongly, but we also tacitly admit that we could be mistaken about it. Thus, such knowledge is like an extremely strong belief; we are sure its true and regard it as true based on what we consider to be very good reasons for it, but we admit that we could be mistaken about it.

Note as well that a number of dictionary definitions support the idea that ‘knowing something’ means having a certain and well-justified belief about the truth of the thing which we believe. For example, the online Oxford Dictionary—accessed on the 20th of March 2017—defines the word ‘know’ as follows: “1 – be aware of through observation, inquiry, or information…[and] 1.2 – be absolutely certain or sure about something” ( https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/know). The 2012 Collins English Dictionary, as found on ‘dictionary.com’—and accessed on the 20th of March 2017—defines the word ‘know’ in the following manner: “to be or feel certain of the truth or accuracy of a fact, etc.” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/know, bold emphasis added). And finally, the 2016 copy of the American Heritage Dictionary, as found on ‘thefreedictionary.com’—and accessed on the 20th of March 2017—states that one of the definitions of the word ‘know’ is the following: “2. To regard as true beyond doubt” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/know, bold emphasis added). So again, holding to the idea that ‘to know’ something is to have a very strong and well-justified belief about it, usually due to the evidence that one has for that belief, is a common and widely accepted view.

So, if we can thus claim to know something if we believe it based on strong evidences and arguments (or for other rational reasons in the case of a basic belief), and if knowledge is therefore understood as a well-justified and strongly-held belief, then knowledge is best understood as being one position of the spectrum of belief: namely, a strong and firm belief that merits the label of knowledge. This is why, for example, in a legal setting—and the legal field is an excellent domain to use given that it is where philosophical musings meet reality—there are different gradations of belief: a belief based on a reasonable suspicion; a belief based on reasonable grounds; a belief which is more probable than not; a belief based on clear and convincing evidence; and a belief which is beyond a reasonable doubt, which—as mentioned earlier—we would all commonsensically call knowledge. Now, if we have these gradations of belief, with at least one of them counting as knowledge, then what this means is that knowledge is about belief, albeit about a specific type of well-justified belief. Thus, agnosticism, even if it is about knowledge, is still ultimately about belief, albeit about a belief that is very strong and well-justified. And note that even Austin Cline—the author from whom we are taking the idea of agnostic-atheism and gnostic-atheism—tacitly admits that knowledge is about a specific type of belief; indeed, in his online article “Atheist vs. Agnostic – What’s the Difference?”, found on the ‘atheism.about.com’ website, and which was accessed on the 8th of September 2016, Cline says the following:

[Quote] There’s a simple test to tell if one is an agnostic or not. Do you think you know for sure if any gods exist? If so, then you’re not an agnostic. Do you think you know for sure that gods do not or even cannot exist? If so, then you’re not an agnostic. Everyone who can’t answer “yes” to one of those questions is a person who may or may not believe in one or more gods, but since they don’t also claim to know for sure they are agnostic — an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, https://www.thoughtco.com/atheist-vs-agnostic-whats-the-difference-248040 (formerly ‘atheism.about.com’)]

Notice that when Cline implicitly states that a gnostic is a person who thinks he knows for sure if God exists or not—whereas an agnostic is a person who does not know this for sure—Cline is essentially admitting that his version of knowledge is just a belief by another name. Indeed, for Cline’s use of the terms ‘think’ and ‘claim to know’ gives his strategy away. After all, a person who thinks or claims that he knows something is merely a person who strongly believes that something is the case; additionally, Cline’s use of the term ‘for sure’ reinforces the fact that Cline is talking about the confidence level and strength of the person’s belief. Thus, in saying that a gnostic-atheist is someone who thinks he knows for sure that God does not exist, Cline is simply saying that a gnostic-atheism is someone who believes and/or claims, with a great deal of certainty and conviction, that God does not exist. But if this is the case, then even Cline himself is tacitly admitting that agnosticism is not about knowledge as some separate category from belief, but rather, it just is a species of belief: namely, a very strongly held one (and one which is well-justified). Thus, gnostic-atheism is little more than an atheistic-belief which is held with near certainty and/or alleged based on good rational grounds; so gnostic-atheism is, in other words, a position which could just as easily be labeled as ‘strong-atheism’ or ‘certain-atheism’ (where atheism is defined in the positive sense), for strong-atheism or certain-atheism means the same thing as gnostic-atheism. And, by extension, since agnostic-atheism would thus mean an atheistic belief that is not held with certainty, then agnostic-atheism could just as easily be labeled as ‘tentative-atheism’ or ‘provisional-atheism’.

And lest anyone would question this interpretation of Cline, note that it is reinforced when Cline—in the same article mentioned directly above—says this:

[Quote] …many people have the mistaken impression that agnosticism and atheism are mutually exclusive. But why? There’s nothing about “I don’t know” which excludes “I don’t believe.” On the contrary, not only are they compatible but they frequently appear together because not knowing is frequently a reason for not believing. It’s often a very good idea to not accept some proposition is true unless you have enough evidence that would qualify as knowledge. [Unquote, bold emphasis added]

When Cline implies that knowledge is the acceptance of a proposition as true only if that proposition has enough evidence for it that it would qualify as “knowledge”, Cline is conceding that the commonsensical view of knowledge as a belief which is based on clear and convincing evidence, or is beyond a reasonable doubt, is a sound view. But this, once again, shows that Cline tacitly accepts that knowledge is just a species of belief, not a separate category from it. Thus, once again, we can see that even on Cline’s view, the key issue surrounding knowledge is with the strength and justification of the belief, and so the ‘agnostic’ or ‘gnostic’ prefix before the term atheism or theism is not something which separates those prefixes from belief, but rather the prefixes are just a different way of stating the strength and certainty that one has in one’s belief about the topic at hand. Thus, the prefix of agnostic or gnostic before the term atheism are just a way of noting the degree of belief that a person could have about their positive-atheism. And in this sense, they are terms which are thus no different than the legal terms noted earlier—such as a belief held on reasonable grounds or a belief held on clear and convincing evidence—which also serve to differentiate on what evidentiary basis, and thus how strongly, a person holds to a certain belief. In fact, in light of the above, the prefix of agnostic or gnostic before the term atheist would be little different than putting, respectively, the prefix of tentative or certain before the term atheist, for both these different forms of prefixes denote the strength of a person’s atheistic convictions and thus they both mean essentially the same thing.

Now, does the fact that agnostic-atheism and gnostic-atheism really amount to just different ways of speaking about the strength of a person’s atheistic beliefs negate the coherency of the aforementioned labels? Not at all. Indeed, a person could be coherently labeled as an agnostic-atheist or a gnostic-atheist if desired (so long as atheism is defined in a positive sense in this case). But what this fact does do is bring up certain points which will weigh against these labels when assessing whether or not they are the best terms to use to label the various positions of unbelief that a person could hold. And that is the topic that we move to next.

The Best Label: Atheism or Agnostic-Atheism.

Although it is the case, as mentioned, that the terms gnostic-atheist and agnostic-atheist are coherent—again, remembering that this is only the case so long as atheism is defined positively within the aforementioned labels, meaning that the terms should really be gnostic-positive-atheism and agnostic-positive-atheism—note that the coherency of these terms does not necessarily mean that they are good labels, or that they are labels that we should adopt, especially when compared to their potential competition. In fact, if there are better labels which we could use to describe the same positions that the labels of agnostic-atheism and gnostic-atheism do, then, as rational creatures, it would behoove us to use the better labels rather than the poorer one. And in this section, it will be argued that the labels of agnostic-atheism and gnostic-atheism, as well as the label of negative lack-of-belief atheism, are indeed not the best labels that we can use to describe unbelievers. Consequently, this means that they are labels that, ultimately, we should not bother using.

Negative-Atheism and the Benefits of Agnostic-Atheism

Now, before moving to compare the different labeling systems, it is critical to remember why it is beneficial for the unbeliever to use the labels of agnostic-positive-atheism and gnostic-positive-atheism. In essence, by embracing these labels, the unbeliever is able to claim that agnosticism should be viewed as a separate category from belief and non-belief about God’s existence, and this, in turn, allows the unbeliever to claim that the term agnosticism should not be thought of as the position of neither believing nor disbelieving in God’s existence, but rather that this is the position that the ‘negative-atheism’ label should fill. So atheism—or negative-atheism, to be more precise—suddenly takes the spot of agnosticism and becomes the burden-less lack-of-belief position that agnosticism once was, thereby allowing the atheist to rhetorically label himself as an atheist while collecting all the burden-avoiding benefits normally given to agnosticism. Thus, it should be realized that a strong driver for the embrace of the labels of agnostic-positive-atheism and gnostic-positive-atheism stems from the fact that embracing these labels allows the unbeliever to remove the term agnosticism from its position between atheism and theism on the spectrum of theistic belief and then fill that position with the term negative-atheism, thereby granting the “atheist” with certain benefits that he would not otherwise have if his point-of-view was understood as a positive belief rather than just as a lack of belief.

Consequently, the debate over the terms agnostic-positive-atheism and gnostic-positive-atheism is really just a proxy debate for the more important issue of whether negative lack-of-belief atheism is a legitimate term that should replace the term agnosticism. And so it needs to be understand that the most important debate here is not necessarily about the labels of agnostic-positive-atheism and gnostic-positive-atheism, but rather, the key debate concerns the labels of agnosticism and negative-atheism, and which one should be used as the label for the position of neither believing nor disbelieving in the existence of God.

The Two Labeling Systems

So, with all of the above stated, let us now look at two competing ways of labeling the various positions that a person could adopt concerning the question of God’s existence.

The first labeling system under consideration—the one which separates agnosticism from belief—includes the following key terms:

  1. Gnostic-theist: A person who has a very strong positive belief that God exists and who thus claims to know that God exists (and please remember that, in this essay, the term God means both God as well as all other gods);

  1. Agnostic-theist: A person who believes that God exists, but who does not claim to know that God exists (and is thus not as certain in his belief as the Gnostic-theist is);

  1. Negative-atheist (or, a lack-of-belief atheist): A person who lacks a positive belief about God, and who thus neither believes nor disbelieves in God’s existence.

  1. Agnostic-positive-atheist: A person who positively believes that God does not exist, but who does not claim to know that God does not exist (and is thus not as certain in his unbelief as the Gnostic-atheist is).

  1. Gnostic-positive-atheist: A person who has a very strong positive belief that God does not exist and thus claims to know that God does not exist.

Now, note immediately that the addition of the ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ prefix to the term atheism is required in the above labeling scheme because there is a need to differentiate between lack-of-belief atheism (negative-atheism) and the atheism which is a positive belief that God does not exist (positive-atheism); and even if negative-atheism were labeled as simply ‘atheism’, it would still be necessary to differentiate positive-atheism from mere atheism in order to show that the latter concerns a lack-of-belief whereas the former includes a positive belief. And note that the addition of the terms gnostic and agnostic is itself not sufficient to accomplish this task of differentiating positive-atheism from negative-atheism, for as argued in Part 3 of this essay series, when the term atheism is defined negatively, then the term agnostic-atheism becomes redundant while the term gnostic-atheism becomes incoherent, which is a serious problem in both cases; but since using the term agnostic-atheism or gnostic-atheism gives no indication as to whether the term ‘atheism’ is being used in a negative or a positive sense in these cases, then this lack of clarity and precision shows why it is necessary to add the ‘positive’ prefix to the ‘atheism’ label in order to make this matter clear. And that is why it is necessary to use the terms agnostic-positive-atheism and gnostic-positive-atheism, rather than just using the imprecise terms agnostic-atheism and gnostic-atheism.

Additionally, note that while the above labels constitute the primary ones for this first labeling system, other secondary labels could be added if needed. For example, the following labels could also be included in this first labeling system: (1) a skeptical-negative-atheist, who is a person who neither believes nor disbelieves in God’s existence because he holds that there are no good grounds for belief either way; (2) a cancellation-negative-atheist, who is a person who neither believes nor disbelieves in God’s existence because he holds that there are good grounds for both positive-atheism and theism, but he also holds that these grounds cancel each other out, and (3) an ignotheist or ignorant-negative-atheist, who is a person who neither believes nor disbelieves in God’s existence because the person is completely ignorant of the very concept of God. So these are just some of the additional secondary labels that could fall under the main ones within this labeling system.

Now, having articulated the first system labeling system under consideration, let us consider the second one, which would be the labeling system that most non-atheists would hold to. And this labeling system includes the following main terms:

  1. Theist: A person who (positively) believes that God exists;

  1. Agnostic: A person who lacks a positive belief about God one way or the other, and who thus neither believes nor disbelieves in God’s existence;

  1. Atheist: A person who (positively) believes that God does not exist.

And in addition to these three primary labels, a number of secondary ones could be included as well, just as was the case with the first labeling system. For example, the labels of skeptical-agnostic, cancellation-agnostic, and ignorant-agnostic could all be added as secondary labels to this specific labeling system. And these terms would have the same definitions that their parallel labels (skeptical-negative-atheist, etc.) in the first labeling system have. And so, any secondary label that was included in either the first or the second labeling system could be mirrored by the other labeling system as well, and so there would arguably be no additional secondary terms within one labeling system which the other labeling system would not possess in some way.

So, in light of these two labeling systems, we must now ask ourselves: Which is the best one, and thus, which one should we use when trying to label the various positions that a person could take concerning the existence of God?

 

The Criteria

In order to objectively determine which of the two aforementioned labeling systems is better than the other, it is necessary to compare each system against certain criteria which can then be used to assess which system is the best. And so let us consider each of these criteria in turn.

Clarity

The primary purpose (or ‘telos’) of non-fiction communication, whether written or verbal, is to convey a message so that it is understood by the receiver, and to that end, clarity in communication and in the way that one labels things—which is a form of communication—is a highly desirable trait. In fact, given the purpose of communication, clarity is arguably the most desirable trait of good communication, and it is, furthermore, one of the key traits that we all use to distinguish good communicators from bad ones. And indeed, we see this latter fact routinely substantiated in daily life. For example, there are some thinkers whose writings are so convoluted and muddled that they are barely understandable, and thus their writings are usually only grasped through the use of study notes which interpret what that thinker is trying to express. Now such thinkers might be brilliant academics within their field, but none of us would call them good communicators, because there is no clarity to their writing; it is obscure and unnecessarily complex. By contrast, certain other brilliant thinkers, without losing any of the content of their message, are nevertheless able to express their ideas in a simple and straightforward way that is understood by all, both lay-person and academic alike. And we all realize and agree that such thinkers are good communicators. Furthermore, we also realize that, comparatively speaking, the latter type of thinker is a better communicator than the former one, precisely because of the latter’s greater clarity. And again, countless other examples can be given: for instance, military officers who give clear orders are seen as better communicators than ones who give orders which are hard to understand; presenters who convey their ideas in a clear manner are understood to be good communicators, whereas presenters whose ideas are not even grasped at the end of their presentation are seen as poor communicators; an instruction manual that clearly and easily shows you all the steps necessary to assemble your children’s bunk-bed is a better manual than one which jumbles all the assembly steps together into an incomprehensible mess; and so on and so forth. Thus, we can see that clarity is indeed a key component to good communication, and since labeling something is a species of communication, then clarity in how one labels a particular position is a desirable trait as well.

At the same time, it must be noted that clarity is intimately intertwined with the concept of simplicity, for clarity is the interplay between simplicity and understanding (and note that the concept of simplicity will be dealt with later on in this work). Thus, clarity is present when a message is transmitted in the simplest way possible while at the same time minimizing confusion and ensuring that the maximum amount of the message is understood by the receiving audience. What this means is that while, at times, a message might need to be complex in order to be understood—such as during a medical procedure where specific medical terms need to be used—that same message, in order to be considered clear, should be no more complex than is necessary to properly convey the message in question. And so, the idea of ‘clarity’ can be viewed as a type of Occam’s Razor specifically geared towards the use of language and communication—a Linguistic Razor, if you will. And this Linguistic Razor states that the complexity of a message should not be increased without necessity. Thus, so long as the content and meaning of a message is not lost in anyway, than a message should be as simple as possible. That is what clarity is.

Furthermore, and as alluded to in the last paragraph, it also needs to be understood that clarity is audience and context dependent. So, for example, if an individual is speaking to an audience that is fully informed in the field that the person is speaking about, then using an obscure but precise technical term to describe something might be clearer than trying to describe the thing in detail without using the technical term in question; by contrast, for an uninformed lay audience, using an obscure technical term that no one would understand would be completely unclear, and so a detailed lay explanation would be more appropriate in such an instance. And indeed, if a speaker (or writer) purposely used a complicated and obscure word to describe something, but this word was not understood by half his audience, and the use of this word was unnecessary given the existence of another word that would have meant the same thing but which would have been understood by the speaker’s whole audience, then we all realize that while such a speaker might get an ego-boost from using a ten-dollar word, that speaker is not being a good communicator in this case, for he is unnecessarily obscuring the message that he is trying to convey to his audience. And so, in this case, such a presenter is being the very opposite of clear, because he is not heeding his audience, which he must do in order to be a clear and good communicator. Thus, with this point in mind, we can note that, as per the so-called ‘Linguistic Razor’ articulated above, the idea of not increasing the complexity of a message without necessity must, to the greatest extent possible, take one’s audience into account, meaning that the type of audience that you are communicating to might make it necessary to change the complexity of your message in order to ensure that it is understood. Therefore, so long as the content and meaning of your message is not lost in anyway given your audience, then that message should be as simple as possible. That is clarity.

Now, the reason that these points are important for the topic at hand is because when we are providing labels for the various positions that a person could hold concerning God’s existence, we are doing so for the widest audience possible. Indeed, these are not simply terms that a select and insular group will use—which might therefore allow them to use certain terms in an unorthodox way without concern—but rather, these labels are for as broad an audience as possible, and so, to the greatest extent feasible, these labels must be as clear as possible to the widest range of people imaginable.

So, with all of the above in mind, note that a very strong case can be made that the second labeling system—the one which only uses the terms atheism, agnosticism, and theism—is clearer than the labeling system that uses the terms negative-atheism, agnostic-positive-atheism, etc. Indeed, from a perspective concerned with clarity, it is much clearer—especially to the common-man and to the widest audience possible—to keep atheism and agnosticism in separate realms rather than trying to meld them together into something like agnostic-positive-atheism, or gnostic-theism, or so on. Furthermore, there are other confusions which can inadvertently arise from the use of the labels in the first labeling system; for example, when the label agnostic-positive-atheist is heard, rather than thinking that this is a term to describe a person who believes that God exists but does not claim to know that God exists, a person is just as likely, if not more likely, to think that the term agnostic-positive-atheist means that the person is an agnostic about the existence some gods but also positively believes that certain other gods do not exist. So serious confusion can arise merely from using this type of label. And for a different example, note that the label gnostic-atheist might just as readily be interpreted as meaning an atheist who has secret occult knowledge—given what the word ‘gnostic’ has meant in the past—rather than being interpreted as meaning an atheist who claims to know that God does not exist, which is what the first labeling system wants it to mean (and note that the same could be true for the term gnostic-theist). Additionally, since, under the first labeling system, atheism is divided into a positive and a negative form, then if an unbeliever merely calls himself an atheist, another person does not have clarity about whether the atheist means that he is a negative-atheist or a positive one. So there is indeed a lack of clarity in the terms from the first labeling system, and communicative confusion can be caused by them. By contrast, the second labeling system, which uses the terms atheism and agnosticism as separate entities, is much clearer. Agnosticism is for people who neither believe nor disbelieve in God’s existence, and atheism is for people who believe, to a greater or lesser extent, that God does not exist. There is no confusion with these terms and no ambiguity either (apart from the ambiguity that now exists in the culture given how modern unbelievers have mudded the waters concerning these two terms). So, from the point-of-view of clarity, it is assessed that the second labeling system—which just uses the terms atheism, agnosticism, and theism—is superior to the first one.

Clarity and Absurdity

In addition to the above points on clarity, there is also another major problem concerning the issue of clarity for the first labeling system, which is the one that specifically employs the concept of negative lack-of-belief atheism. And that problem is that the theist has just as much right as the atheist does to claim that his is merely a ‘lack-of-belief’ position; what this means is that the theist has just as much right to use the idea of negative-theism as the atheist has the right to use the idea of negative-atheism. Indeed, as I argue in my book Turning the Tables on Atheism: Why Theism, Not Atheism, Should be Viewed as the Real Burden-Less, Lack-of-Belief Point-of-View, the theist, using the exact same reasoning as the atheist, can claim a right to employ the concept of negative-theism, which is simply a lack-of-belief concerning the non-existence of God. But if that is the case, then an absurdity arises, for this means that a person could be a negative-theist and a negative-atheist at the same time, for it is possible to both lack a belief in the existence of God and lack a belief in the non-existence of God simultaneously; however, since neither the theist nor the atheist needs to drop the ‘negative’ version of their position, then this creates an absurd scenario that is best avoided if at all possible. And here is how I articulated this issue in my other book:

[Quote] …this objection notes that since both negative-atheism and negative-theism are compatible with agnosticism, then it is theoretically possible for a person to be both a negative-atheist and a negative-theist at the same time, and yet since such a position appears absurd, then there is a problem with the idea of negative-theism. Now such an objection might seem fatal to the idea of negative-theism, but since the theistic position has just as much right and legitimacy as atheism does to divide itself into a positive and a negative form, then the fact is that this is a problem for both negative-theism and negative-atheism; indeed, there is absolutely no reason why it must be the theistic position that drops its negative form rather than the atheistic position, and so there is no clear way to arbitrate which position needs to drop its negative form in order to prevent this absurdity from occurring.

Now, it should be noted that given the fact that a person could technically be a negative-atheist and a negative-theist at the same time, and given that neither theism nor atheism need to give up their idea of a ‘negative’ position in favor of the opposing side, and also given that this whole situation does indeed seem absurd, then perhaps all this means that the best course of action in this case would be to simply toss both negative-atheism and negative-theism aside and claim that anyone who lacks a belief in either God’s existence or non-existence should simply be labelled as an agnostic or as an ignotheist (the latter label being used for someone who has truly never even contemplated the issue of God’s existence and thus genuinely and literally lacks a belief about that issue). Now such a move would, of course, mean that atheists would need to forego the idea of negative-atheism and they could no longer claim that atheism is a mere lack of belief concerning God’s existence; this would, in turn, also mean that atheists would suddenly have to bear a burden of proof for their atheism. Nevertheless, if atheists were willing to accept these specific consequences as the outcome needed to prevent the aforementioned absurd position from occurring, then such a course of action would be acceptable, thereby meaning that the concept of both negative-atheism and negative-theism should be dropped (and this is the course of action that I would support). However, if atheists would be unwilling to drop the idea of negative-atheism even in light of the aforementioned problem, then, by extension, theists would have no reason to drop their appeal to negative-theism either. And so, in such a situation, theists could still appeal to negative-theism just as readily as atheists could appeal to negative-atheism regardless of the strange position that doing so might place them both in. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, https://www.damianmichael.com/2017/03/28/the-argument-for-negative-theism/%5D

Thus, the point here is that since any labeling system which uses the term negative-atheism necessarily allows the theist to create the mirror term of negative-theism, and yet since the co-existence of a negative form of atheism and a negative form of theism is essentially absurd, then, in the interests of clarity, it is best to drop any labeling system that causes this problem. And since the first labeling system that we are considering (agnostic-positive-atheism, negative-atheism, etc.) does raise this problem whereas the second labeling system (atheism, theism, agnosticism) does not, then this is yet another reason to prefer the latter system to the former one when it comes to the criterion of communicative clarity.

Simplicity

Now, while clarity is an important trait to consider, so to is simplicity, which, as mentioned, is closely tied to the issue of clarity. Simplicity, or, in other words, the principle of parsimony—also known as Occam’s Razor—tells us that we should not multiple the entities that we posit to explain something beyond what is necessary to do the explaining, thus meaning that the simplest explanation or hypothesis that can still account for everything that we need to explain is rationally preferable to more complex explanations or hypotheses. And atheist Graham Oppy, on page seven and eight of his 2013 first edition Palgrave McMillan hardcover book The Best Argument against God, writes the following about simplicity and its desirability:

[Quote] When we compare two views—or hypotheses, or beliefs, or theories—in order to determine which one is most favoured by certain considerations, we need to have a set of criteria that we can appeal to in carrying out our comparisons. The most significant criteria that we shall be taking into account in the coming investigation are:

(a) Simplicity: If everything else is equal, we should prefer the more simple theory to the less simple theory. If everything else is equal, we should prefer the theory that postulates fewer (and less complex) primitive entities. If everything else is equal, we should prefer the theory that invokes fewer (and less complex) primitive features. If everything else is equal, we should prefer the theory that appeals to fewer (and less complex) primitive principles. [Unquote, bold emphasis added]

So simplicity is a clearly a desirable trait. But when it comes to the question of different labeling systems, how is the criterion of simplicity supposed to work? What makes one labeling system simpler than another? Well, in such a case, a labeling system which uses fewer labels, and which uses less words in each label, is simpler than a labeling system which uses more labels and more words per label.

And so, when it comes to simplicity in the aforementioned respect, the second labeling system, which uses only the labels of atheism, agnosticism, and theism, is indeed simpler than the first labeling system both in terms of the number of labels that it uses, and the number of words that it uses per label; indeed, for far from using the five primary labels of gnostic-positive-atheism, agnosticism-positive-atheism, negative-atheism, agnosticism-theism, and gnostic-theism, which the first labeling system uses, the second labeling system only uses the three one-word labels of atheism, agnosticism, and theism. Thus, as stated, the second system is simpler both in the number of terms that it uses and in the number of words used in each label. And note that even if the words ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ were removed from the labels of the first labeling system—the removal of which would, however, reduce the clarity of those labels—the fact is that those labels would still be more complex than the simple one-word labels of atheism, agnosticism, and theism. So not only are the latter labels clearer than their rivals, but they are also simpler.

However, it should be noted that a proponent of the first labeling system could immediately object to the above line of reasoning by noting that whereas his labeling system might indeed be more complex and less simple, it is also more precise and has a wider scope, because it differentiates between unbelievers who only believe that God does not exist and those who claim to know that God does not exist. And since simplicity is only to be valued if all other things are equal, then the greater precision and scope of the first labeling system overcomes the difficulties in simplicity that it encounters. This objection, however, actually backfires against the first labeling system. Why? Because the second labeling system—the one which only uses the labels atheism, agnosticism, and theism—is readily able to accommodate, through the use of different adjectives, a similar grading system to describe the level of belief that an atheist or theist might have. For example, under the second labeling system, a person could be a certain-atheist (or theist), meaning that the person is certain that atheism (or theism) is true, and thus his belief would count as knowledge. Or a person could be a tentative-atheist (or theist), meaning that his belief in the truth of atheism (or theism) is weak and provisional. And a person could even be a firm-atheist (or theist), meaning that his belief in the truth of atheism (or theism) is settled and secure, but it is not treated as certain. In fact, it would even be possible to introduce a position like weak-atheism (or theism), which would be in-between tentative-atheism and firm-atheism. Additionally, there could be strong-atheism (or theism) as well, which would be in-between firm-atheism and certain-atheism. So the ability to differentiate between the strength of belief amongst various atheists or theists is easily done on the second labeling system. And note that the use of these common terms—tentative, certain, firm—is still clearer than the use of the terms gnostic or agnostic is when those latter terms are combined with the term atheism. Thus, even with the addition of these adjectives, the second labeling system still possesses greater clarity for the widest audience than the first labeling system does, especially when it comes to grading different levels of belief.

Furthermore, even though these adjectives may need to be added to the second labeling system in order to make it as precise and broad in scope as the first labeling system, note that in terms of simplicity and precision, the first labeling system actually gains no new advantage over the second. Why? Because since the first labeling system uses the label agnostic-positive-atheism (as well as agnostic-theism), and since, here, agnostic-positive-atheism is defined as a person who believes that God does not exist but who does not claim to know that God does not exist (and agnostic-theism holds to the same view but just in a theistic direction), then the fact is that different agnostic-positive-atheists might still have different levels of belief in God’s non-existence than other agnostic-positive-atheists (and the same holds true for different agnostic-theists). And this means that the term agnostic-positive-atheism (as well as agnostic-theism) will itself need to be sub-divided further in order to differentiate the strength of belief that each particular agnostic-positive-atheist has concerning God’s non-existence. So, this means that, in order to be precise, the label agnostic-positive-atheist (as well as agnostic-theist) will need to become separated even further. Indeed, labels like tentative-agnostic-positive-atheist and firm-agnostic-positive-atheist will need to be used in order to truly express the proper level of disbelief that each specific agnostic-positive-atheist has. Thus, the point is that since the first labeling system will itself need to differentiate between the different levels of belief that an agnostic-positive-atheist (or agnostic-theist) might have, and it will need to do so in essentially the same way that the second labeling system does, then the first labeling system gains no advantage in terms of simplicity. In fact, as seen, the labels used in the first labeling system simply become more complex and convoluted given that more and more words are being attached to the labels within that system. And so, since the first labeling system needs to add the same adjectives as the second labeling system does in order to remain as precise as the second labeling system, and since the first labeling system thus remains more convoluted and complex than the second labeling system is, the second labeling system therefore remains as the comparatively simpler system of the two.

Finally, if a proponent of the first labeling system objects that the second labeling system has no term to match the meaning of the label gnostic-positive-atheist—namely, someone who both believes that God does not exist and claims to know that God does not exist—then note that this is a mistaken objection. After all, as has been articulated throughout this series of essays, knowledge is understood to be a belief that is very-well justified or certain; consequently, the label of certain-atheism, as used in the second labeling system, just is the same thing as gnostic-positive-atheism. So the second labeling system does indeed have a label that matches gnostic-positive-atheism, and it is a label that is even easier to understand than the label gnostic-positive-atheism is.

So, when it comes to simplicity and clarity, the second labeling system (atheism, theism, agnosticism, and their outshoots) is simpler and clearer than the first labeling system (gnostic-positive-atheism, negative-atheism, etc.). Indeed, the second labeling system uses no more overall labels than the first system does to describe all the possible positions that a person could hold concerning the question of God’s existence, but the labels themselves are less complex, less convoluted, and easier to understand than the labels found in the first labeling system. As such, the second labeling system, which only uses the terms atheism, theism, and agnosticism—or derivations thereof—has the advantage over its rival labeling system in terms of simplicity and clarity.

Precision and Scope

When speaking of the precision and scope of a labeling system, all that is meant is that the labeling system has a sufficient number of terms to adequately label all the different positions that a person could take concerning a particular question without any loss of clarity in the definitions themselves. So, for example, a labeling system that only used one label to describe atheists, agnostics, and theists all together would be an extremely simple labeling system, but it would be so unclear and imprecise that it would not be a legitimate labeling system at all. By contrast, a labeling system which used two hundred different labels to describe atheists, agnostics, and theists, might be very precise, but so many labels would be totally unnecessary for any reasonable purposes, and thus such a labeling system would run afoul of the criterion of simplicity in a very big way. And so, we can see how precision and scope are intimately tied to the issues of clarity and simplicity, for a labeling system needs to have enough labels to be clear and precise, and yet these labels should not be unreasonably extraneous, or else the labeling system will be unnecessarily complex.

Now, concerning the question of God’s existence, both labeling system considered in this essay do contain enough labels to adequately and precisely cover all the different positions that a person could hold concerning this question. Indeed, as touched on earlier, both systems contain a sufficient number of labels to be able to adequately describe, without any loss of precision, any and every type of position that a person might hold concerning the issue of God’s existence. Thus, when it comes to the criteria of precision and scope, both labeling systems are equal in terms of these criteria.

Congruence with Previous Linguistic and Social Understandings

Another factor that is important to consider is whether the labels used in a particular labeling system, and the definitions of those specific labels, is generally in line with our previous understanding of what those labels and definitions mean. What this entails is that if, say, we had a labeling system that used labels, and specific definitions for those labels, which were completely different and unknown from anything that had been used before, then this would be a problem for that labeling system when compared to its rivals. Additionally, if the labels and definitions used in a particular labeling system were the literal opposite of what the labels and definitions were usually associated with—for example, if we used the label ‘golfnut’ or ‘theist’ to describe an actual atheist—then this would also be a problem for that labeling system. Thus, a labeling system which uses labels that we already culturally and linguistically associate with the definitions that the labels are linked to is a better labeling system than one that does not do this. And while this idea of past ‘congruence’ is, once again, closely tied to the issue of clarity, it is, ironically enough, for the sake of clarity that it is nevertheless beneficial to treat this matter of congruence as a separate criterion.

So, when it comes to the issue of which labeling system under consideration is better in terms of its congruence, it is assessed that both systems are relatively equal—although it must be said that not many unbelievers actually use the terms agnostic-positive-atheist or gnostic-atheist to describe themselves, and theists also do not use the labels of gnostic-theism and agnostic-theism to describe themselves either. Thus, if anything, the second labeling system—the one which only uses the labels of atheism, agnostic, and theism—is arguably slightly more congruent with the way in which most people use these labels. However, there is no doubt that certain unbelievers would disagree with this claim; indeed, such unbelievers would no doubt claim that the labeling system most congruent with a proper understanding of atheism is the one which views atheism as a lack of belief rather than as a positive belief in the non-existence of God, as is the labeling system that views agnosticism as dealing with knowledge, not belief. Thus, certain unbelievers would likely claim that the first labeling system is the one that is most congruent with how these terms have been used and should be used. And yet, against such unbelievers, a very strong case can be made that the second labeling system that we are considering, if not superior in this particular criterion, is, as stated, at least equal to the first labeling system in this regard. Indeed, many sources acknowledge the fact that the label agnosticism is often associated with the idea of neither believing nor disbelieving in God, and such sources also acknowledge that the label of atheism is also often associated with a positive belief that God does not exist rather than with a mere lack of belief; at the same time, however, other sources argue that the division between negative-atheism and positive-atheism is legitimate, and that atheism needs to be divided in this regard. Thus, as stated, there is a type of parity between the two labeling systems when it comes to the issue of congruence given that each labeling system has different sources which support their claims; and to clearly show that this is the case, let us thus consider a number of these different sources to demonstrate the fact that both labeling systems have this alleged support.

Consider, first, Robert M. Martin’s 2002 3rd Edition of The Philosopher’s Dictionary, where, on page 34 and 35, Martin defines atheism, theism, and agnosticism as follows:

[Quote] Atheists believe that God doesn’t exist. … Atheism is contrasted with its opposite, theism, the view that God does exist, and also with agnosticism, the view that there isn’t any good reason to believe either that God exists or that He doesn’t. [Unquote]

So Martin’s definitions of these three terms supports the way in which the second labeling system uses these terms. (And now please note that since the definition of theism is essentially agreed upon by all parties as the view that God exists, then, for the sake of brevity, the subsequent sources will focus exclusively on the definitions of atheism and agnosticism rather than on the definition of theism).

Next, Matt McCormick’s online article “Atheism”, on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy—which was accessed on the 25th of November 2015—provides this definition of atheism and agnosticism:

[Quote] Atheism is the view that there is no God … It has come to be widely accepted that to be an atheist is to affirm the non-existence of God. Anthony Flew (1984) called this positive atheism, whereas to lack a belief that God or gods exist is to be a negative atheist. Parallels for this use of the term would be terms such as “amoral,” “atypical,” or “asymmetrical.”  So negative atheism would includes someone who has never reflected on the question of whether or not God exists and has no opinion about the matter and someone who had thought about the matter a great deal and has concluded either that she has insufficient evidence to decide the question, or that the question cannot be resolved in principle.  Agnosticism is traditionally characterized as neither believing that God exists nor believing that God does not exist. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, http://www.iep.utm.edu/atheism/%5D

So again, the way in which this source claims to define atheism and agnosticism is congruent with the way that the second labeling system defines these terms; however,  McCormick does mention the division that some unbelievers make between positive-atheism and negative-atheism, which thereby does lend some support to the first labeling system as well.

Now, for a third source, atheist Michael Martin, in his “General Introduction” to the 2006 Cambridge Companion to Atheism, defines atheism as follows:

[Quote] If you look up “atheism” in a dictionary, you will find it defined as the belief that there is no God. Certainly, many people understand “atheism” in this way. Yet this is not what the term means if one considers it from the point of view of its Greek roots. In Greek “a” means “without” or “not”, and “theos” means “god.” From this standpoint, an atheist is someone without belief in God; he or she need not be someone who believes that God does not exist. Still, there is a popular dictionary meaning of “atheism” according to which an atheist is not simply one who holds no belief in the existence of a God or gods but is one who believes that there is no God or gods. This dictionary use of the term should not be overlooked. To avoid confusion, let us call it positive atheism and let us call the type of atheism derived from the original Greek roots negative atheism. [Unquote, bold emphasis added]

And Martin, in the same work, then defines agnosticism as follows:

[Quote] Agnosticism, the position of neither believing nor disbelieving that God exists, is often contrasted with atheism. However, this common opposition of agnosticism to atheism is misleading. Agnosticism and positive atheism are indeed incompatible: if atheism is true, agnosticism is false and conversely. But agnosticism is compatible with negative atheism in that agnosticism entails negative atheism. Since agnostics do not believe in God, they are by definition negative atheists. This is not to say that negative atheism entails agnosticism. A negative atheist might disbelieve in God but need not. [Unquote, bold emphasis added]

And so, as with McCormick, Martin’s definitions of atheism and agnosticism could be seen as offering some support to the first labeling system and some support to the second labeling system.

Next, atheist JJC Smart, in his 8th of August 2011 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Atheism & Agnosticism”—which was accessed on the 11th of September 2016—defines atheism as follows: “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.” Additionally, in that same article, and although he speaks of agnosticism in general, Smart nevertheless links agnosticism to belief when he says the following:

[Quote] ‘Agnostic’ is more contextual than is ‘atheist’, as it can be used in a non-theological way, as when a cosmologist might say that she is agnostic about string theory, neither believing nor disbelieving it. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/%5D

And so, Smart’s definitions are more in line with the definitions of the second labeling system.

Finally, in his famous book The God Delusion, and specifically in the section titled “The Poverty of Agnosticism”, arch-atheist Richard Dawkins describes a spectrum of theistic belief, when pure agnosticism directly in the middle of that spectrum, and with atheism and theism on either end of the spectrum. Indeed, Richard Dawkins’s spectrum of theistic belief, which is based on the strength of a person’s claim of his belief, lists the following levels of possible theistic belief: strong theist, de facto theist, agnostic-leaning-towards-theism, completely impartial agnostic, agnostic-leaning-towards-atheism, de facto atheist, strong atheist. And this “spectrum” is quite similar to the way in which the second labeling system operates, thereby once again lending some support to that particular system.

Now, moving away from the definitions provided by specific individuals, let us consider a number of dictionary definitions of the terms agnosticism and atheism. For example, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, accessed on the 4th of August 2016, has a simple definition of an agnostic as being “a person who does not have a definite belief about whether God exists or not”; it also has a full definition which states that an agnostic is “a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god.” Furthermore, that same dictionary also provides its general and non-theistic definition of an agnostic as being “a person who does not believe or is unsure of something” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/agnostic). And Dictionary.com, accessed on the same date, provides one of its definitions of an agnostic as being “a person who holds neither of two opposing positions on a topic” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/agnostic). Next, in relation to the term atheism, Dictionary.com—accessed on the 25th of November 2015—defines an ‘atheist’ as being “a person who denies or disbelieves in the existence of a supreme being or beings” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/atheist?s=t). And the Oxford Dictionary—accessed at OxfordDictionaries.com on the 25th of November 2015—defines ‘atheism’ as being a “Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods” (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/atheism). Finally, the 2016 5th Edition of American Heritage Dictionary, as found on TheFreeDictionary.com—and accessed on the 3rd of April 2017—defines ‘atheism’ as “Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/atheist). So these dictionary definitions demonstrate that both the first and the second labeling system can find dictionary support for the way in which they wish to define their various terms.

And so, in light of all these definitions, all of which are from reputable sources, the point is that both labeling systems find some support and congruence from these different sources. Furthermore, as these sources demonstrate, there is nothing unorthodox or abnormal about a labeling system, such as the second labeling system, which defines atheism as just a positive belief in the non-existence of God and which also ties agnosticism to belief claims rather than exclusively to knowledge claims, which is what the first labeling systems wishes to do. Additionally, it should be pointed out that while these sources do offer some support to the claim that atheism can be defined in both a positive and a negative sense, it is interesting to note that none of these sources really endorse the existence of labels such as gnostic-atheism, or agnostic-positive-atheism, etc. Nevertheless, proponents of the first labeling system could no doubt provide sources which do support those specific labels. And so, in the end, and as already stated, it is assessed that in terms of their congruence with currently accepted social and linguistic norms, both labeling systems are, arguably, equal when it comes to this particular criterion.

The Best Labeling System

At this point, we have considered several objective criteria which are both desirable in a labeling system and which can help to determine whether one type of labeling system is superior to another. And when using these criteria to compare the two labeling systems under consideration in this essay—with the first labeling system being the one that uses such primary labels as agnostic-positive-atheist, negative-atheist, and so on, and with the second labeling system using only the primary labels of atheist, agnostic, and theist—the assessment of these two labeling systems is that both of them adequately cover all the possible positions which could be held about the God-question, and both are relatively equal concerning their congruence with the way in which we understand and use these labels (although, arguably, the second labeling system might have a very slight advantage here); however, when it comes to simplicity and clarity, the second labeling system has a clear advantage over the first labeling system. Indeed, the second labeling system uses less terms, its individual terms are less complex and less convoluted, no confusion arises concerning the term atheism itself (which, in the first labeling system, can be readily confused between negative-atheism and positive-atheism if not properly delineated), and no absurdities arise either, as they do in the first labeling system given the problems that occur when the idea of negative-theism is placed alongside the concept of negative-atheism. Thus, when it comes to the two criteria of simplicity and clarity, the second labeling system is superior to its rival. And so, given that a labeling system which is superior in terms of its simplicity and clarity is a better labeling system than one that is not as clear or simple, then this means that the second labeling system—the one that only uses the labels of atheism, agnosticism, and theism—is a better labeling system than the first one.

Furthermore, it is also important to note that even if the first labeling system removed its cumbersome attempt to make agnosticism into something additional that is tacked on to positive-atheism/theism—meaning that the first labeling system would remove the labels of agnostic-positive-atheist (or theist) and gnostic-atheist (or theist) from its repertoire, thus leaving only the labels of theist, negative-atheist, and positive-atheist within its system—the fact is that such a modified system would still be less simple and less clear than the second labeling system. After all, the potential confusion between negative-atheism and positive-atheism would remain, and to remove that confusion, the labels used would still need be more complex and less clear than the labels used in the second labeling system. Furthermore, the absurdity issue arising from the interplay between negative-theism and negative-atheism would remain as well. Additionally, there would also be the problem that under this ‘modified’ first labeling system, which removed the term agnosticism from its system, that term would thus be in limbo, either being unused or simply meaning essentially the same thing as negative-atheism. Thus, this further problem with agnosticism would just add more confusion for this modified first labeling system. And so, in the end, it is assessed that any type of labeling system which uses the concept and label of negative-atheism will simply not be as clear or simple as a system which both rejects the use of negative-atheism and which only uses the three primary labels of atheism, agnosticism, and theism. And this is precisely what the second labeling system does.

So, in the end, it is assessed that the best labeling system to use to cover all the different positions that a person could hold concerning the question of God’s existence is a labeling system where 1) the primary label ‘theist’ is defined as a person who believes, to a greater or lesser extent, that God exists, and 2) the primary label ‘agnostic’ is defined is a person who neither believes nor disbelieves (lacks a belief, if you will) that God exists, and 3) the primary label ‘atheist’ is defined as a person who believes, to a greater or lesser extent, that God does not exist (remembering that, in this essay, the term God means both God and gods). Consequently, this best labeling system thus has atheism on one end of the spectrum of theistic belief, theism on the other end, agnosticism in the middle, and the various different strengths of belief spread out in-between theism and atheism. And so, as stated, this labeling system—one which does not divide atheism into a positive and a negative form—is indeed a better labeling system than any of its rivals. And given that fact, this labeling system is arguably the most rational one to hold to and use as well.

A Suggestion for Unbelievers

Now, although it has been assessed that the second labeling system—the one which rejects the concept and the label of negative lack-of-belief atheism—is a better labeling system than any system which actually uses the ‘negative-atheist’ label, we should not be so naïve as to believe that this assessment will stop unbelievers from continuing to use the term atheism in a negative, lack of belief manner. Indeed, there is to much of a vested interest for unbelievers to cease doing so; consequently, the use of the term atheism as little more than a synonym for agnosticism will not stop anytime soon. And in light of this fact, a suggestion can thus be offered. In essence, if unbelievers are going to continue to unnecessarily separate atheism into a positive and a negative form, and if unbelievers are going to continue using negative-atheism to mean lacking a belief in the existence of God—which is, as argued, what agnosticism should mean—than in order to make the difference between negative-atheism and positive-atheism absolutely clear, unbelievers should thus adopt a new term for the idea of positive-atheism; indeed, in order to avoid anymore confusion with the term atheism, it is suggested that the term ‘niltheism’ be introduced as a replaceable for positive-atheism. Given that the prefix ‘nil’ means zero or none, then niltheism can come to mean the belief that there is no God or gods, or that there are zero God or gods. Consequently, with the introduction of this new term, the simple term atheism could be restricted to mean only negative-atheism, whereas niltheism would become the proper term to describe positive-atheism; it would have nothing to do with a lack of belief and it would strictly describe the positive belief that there is no God (or gods).

Now, it should be noted that the introduction of the term niltheism does not negate some of the points which make the concept and the label of negative-atheism seriously problematic, such as the absurdity issue which arises from the mixing of negative-atheism and negative-theism; nevertheless, adding the term niltheism to the unbeliever’s repertoire will at least clear up the confusion between negative-atheism and positive-atheism, and for that reason, it is strongly suggested that the term niltheism be adopted as a replacement for the term positive-atheism by any unbeliever who refuses to let go of the ‘negative-atheist’ label.

An Even Better Labeling System

Finally, given the high level of dispute over how to define atheism, agnosticism, and theism, let us consider the possibility that perhaps the best way to resolve this disagreement is to simply drop the words atheism, agnosticism, and theism from our daily lexicon and replace them with a totally different way of describing believers and unbelievers. Of course, replacing these terms would not mean that they would cease to exist, but rather, they would simply be treated like technical terms which are not really used in the popular culture; indeed, just as there exist technical medical terms for different muscle groups, organs, and diseases, which are used by doctors but not by lay-people, then the same sort of thing could occur with the terms atheism, agnosticism, and theism. Thus, in daily life, these terms would be replaced be more colloquial terms which, ironically enough, would actually be more clear and precise than the original terms themselves. However, if this were to occur, then the key question becomes: What are these informal terms that would replace the labels of atheism, agnosticism, and theism?

Now, before directly addressing the question above, consider first the layman’s way in which we describe the various positions that a person might hold within a certain sport. For example, as laymen, when we speak about a person connected to a certain sport, we usually specify whether the person is a coach, or a player, or an announcer, etc.; at the same time, we also articulate the type of sport under consideration, because just saying that a person is a coach or a player does not give us the type of clarity needed to know which sport the person coaches or plays. So, when describing a person involved in a sport, our layman’s description notes the type of sport the person is involved with as well as the type of position that the person has in that sport; thus, a person might be labeled as a football-coach, or a baseball-player, or a tennis-referee. And labeling the individuals in this matter removes any ambiguity or confusion from the situation, for the label makes it both clear and indisputable to everyone what position the person occupies within the specific sport (and this is especially the case since we can be as specific as needed to describe the person’s position, such as when we label someone as, for example, the Second Assistant Offensive-Line Football Coach of John Smith University, and so on). And so, this way of labeling is one which potentially offers a dispute-free way of categorizing different positions within a certain domain.

So, with the benefits of the sports example in mind, it is suggested that the same type of labeling system be implemented concerning the question of God’s existence in order to circumvent the dispute over the way in which to define the terms atheism, agnosticism, and theism. As such, it is proposed that, at least in our day-to-day language, the terms atheism, theism, and agnosticism be dropped, and then replaced with the following labels:

  1. God-Believer: A person who believes, to a greater or lesser extent, that God (or gods) exists; this term would be the layman’s version of the term theist.

  1. God-Disbeliever (or Denier): A person who believes, to a greater or lesser extent, that God (or gods) does not exist; this term would be the layman’s version of the term atheist (or the term positive-atheist).

  1. God-Uncertain (or Neutral): A person who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of God; this term would be the layman’s version of the term agnostic and/or the term negative lack-of-belief atheist.

  1. God-Non-affirming: Essentially, someone who is God-Neutral, but who also wishes to be extremely specific concerning the fact that their position is that they neither affirm nor deny God’s existence; this term would be another layman’s version of term negative lack-of-belief atheist.

  1. God-Unknowable: A person who claims that God’s existence is unknowable; this term would be the layman’s version of strong-agnosticism.

  1. God-Incoherent: A person who claims that the concept of God is incoherent; this term would be the layman’s label for the idea of theistic non-cognitivism.

  1. God-Meaningless: A person who claims that ‘God talk’ is meaningless because it is not verifiable; this term would be the layman’s label for the idea of theistic verificationism.

  1. God-Ignorant: A person who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of God (or gods) because the person is genuinely and completely ignorant of the idea of God (like an infant, for example).

  1. God-Skeptic: A person who is God-Neutral because he is skeptical of both the grounds for belief in God and the grounds for non-belief in God; this term would be the layman’s version of the term skeptical-agnostic.

  1. God-Equiprobable: A person who is neutral about God’s existence because he finds the evidence for God’s existence to be as good as the evidence against God’s existence; this term would be the layman’s version of the term cancellation-agnostic.

  1. God-Hater: A person who may or may not believe in God’s existence, but who hates the idea of God.

  1. God-Indifferent: A person who does not care whether or not God exists.

  1. God-Desirer: A person who may or may not believe in God’s existence, but who wants God to exist.

And other general labels could be added as well, for using this method of combining two terms allows for many different options to be created. Additionally, the use of the term ‘God’ could be replaced with a term like ‘deity’ if desired. Furthermore, and as hinted at earlier, this method allows for multilayered flexibility, in that additional terms could be included within the labels themselves in order to better explain the specific type of belief or disbelief that a person holds. So, for example, a person could be labeled as a ‘broad (or total)-God-disbeliever’, meaning that the person disbelieves in the existence of all gods, thereby showing the scope of a person’s belief or disbelief. Or a person could be listed as a ‘fideistic-God-believer’ or an ‘evidentialist-God-believer’, thereby showing how the person holds to their belief or disbelief. The strength of a person’s belief could also be noted: for example, a person could be labeled as a ‘certain-God-believer’, or as a ‘tentative-God-disbeliever’. So this method of labeling offers both clarity and flexibility.

Now, is this way of labeling the various positions that a person could hold about God’s existence an improvement over the more standard labels of atheism, theism, and agnosticism. Well, both yes and no. No, it is not an improvement in the sense that the above terms are clunky and are no more flexible than the terms theism, atheism, and agnosticism are. For example, it is just as easy—and perhaps easier—to say that a person is a fidesitic-theist than it is to say that they are a fideistic-God-believer. So, in one sense, there is little reason to adopt this system. However, where this system would improve matters is that it would negate the dispute over what the term ‘atheist’ means, and it would thus bring greater clarity to the whole discussion over how to label believers and disbelievers. Indeed, whereas today, the definition of the term atheist is disputed and thus ambiguous, note that the term God-Disbeliever holds no confusion in it, for it clearly means a person who disbelieves in the existence God. At the same time, the term God-Neutral or God-Non-affirming indicates a person who neither believes nor disbelieves in God’s existence. So, in essence, this more cumbersome but more precise system does three beneficial things: 1) it removes the confusion over the term atheist by getting rid of that term and replacing it with a number of unambiguous terms, and 2) it negates the problem of negative-atheism’s overlap with agnosticism, and 3) it is a system which both atheist and theist alike can agree on. Thus, in these respects, it is a better system than the others, for it brings greater clarity to the whole dispute over the term ‘atheist’. And since greater clarity is something which is always desirable when it comes to communication, then that is why this different way of labeling the various positions that a person could hold concerning God’s existence should at least be considered as a viable replacement to the various systems that are presently in use.

Conclusion

In this essay, it has been argued that if the unbeliever tries to adopt the terms of agnostic-positive-atheism and gnostic-atheism in an attempt to separate negative lack-of-belief atheism from agnosticism, thereby trying to avoid the charge of conflating negative-atheism with agnosticism, then all this maneuver really does is merely switch the term agnosticism with negative-atheism. At the same time, it was also argued that when comparing a labeling system that uses the terms agnostic-positive-atheism, gnostic-atheism, and negative-atheism to a labeling system that simply uses the terms atheism and agnosticism in the more commonly accepted way, that this latter labeling system was a better labeling system to the former one; and in light of this determination, the latter labeling system is the rationally preferable one to use. Nevertheless, it was also noted that such a fact would not stop unbelievers from using the more rhetorically useful labeling system to their advantage. Thus, at the end of this essay it was argued that perhaps the best course of action to take in order to negate the debate over what atheism means is to stop using the term atheism altogether, and to replace it with a label that leaves no ambiguity as to what the label means.

In the end, whether it is by accepting the fact that any labeling system which uses the term negative-atheism is not as good of a labeling system as one which does not use this term, or through the dropping of the label of atheism altogether, this essay hopes that the dispute over how best to label believers and unbelievers alike can now be resolved to the satisfaction of everyone involved in this disagreement.

Advertisements

One thought on “Atheism, Agnosticism, and Bullshit: Part 4 – Negative-Atheism is a Poor Label

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s