Atheists who won’t admit it: 2. Kyrsten Sinema

January 9, 2013 • 9:56 am

Thank God we finally have an unbeliever in the U.S. congress (I’m sure there are others who won’t admit it, for it’s political poison in our country to profess nonbelief). This one professes it: Kyrsten Sinema, a newly elected Congresswoman from Arizona.  She’s not only openly bisexual, but she doesn’t believe in God. The thing is, she’s timorous about admitting it.

Now I’m not a fan of Chris Stedman, who espouses the osculation of the religious rump in the interest of “interfaith action,” but even a blind pig can find an occasional acorn.  And, at CNN, Stedman has called out Sinema (who, to be sure, is courageous in confessing her bisexuality) for refusing to admit her atheism. In a piece at CNN‘s “belief” section called “‘Atheist’ isn’t a dirty word, congresswoman,” Stedman notes some waffling on her part:

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, was sworn in a few days ago without a Bible, and she is the first member of Congress to openly describe her religious affiliation as “none.” Although 10 other members don’t specify a religious affiliation — up from six members in the previous Congress — Sinema is the only to officially declare “none.”

This has gotten Sinema a fair amount of attention from the media. Many identified her as an atheist during her congressional campaign, and after she won, sources touted her as a nontheist. Even this past weekend, Politico declared in a headline: “Non-believers on rise in Congress.”

But there’s a slight issue: Sinema doesn’t actually appears to be a nonbeliever. In response to news stories identifying her as an atheist, her campaign released this statement shortly after her victory: “(Rep. Sinema) believes the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”

If you live in the U.S., you’ll know why her campaign made that statement. If you’re identified as a nonbeliever in our country, and don’t keep mum about it. you’re political dead meat. In fact, I doubt that Sinema can be elected again (she has a two-year term). Imagine—she wouldn’t be sworn in on a Bible! (As Stedman notes, “According to a Gallup poll released in June, only 58% of Americans would vote for a ‘generally well-qualified’ Muslim candidate, and only 54% would vote for an atheist. (This is the first time that number has been above 50% for an atheist candidate.)  By contrast, 91% would vote for a Jewish candidate, 94% for a Catholic and 80% for a Mormon.”)

Stedman’s response is on the money:

As a nontheist, atheist and nonbeliever (take your pick), I find this statement deeply problematic.

It is perfectly fine, of course, if Sinema isn’t a nontheist, and it is understandable that she would want to clarify misinformation about her personal beliefs. But to say that these terms are “not befitting of her life’s work or personal character” is offensive because it implies there is something unbefitting about the lives and characters of atheists or nonbelievers.

Try substituting a religious group of your choice in place of atheist if you don’t agree: “[Rep. Sinema] believes the term Muslim is not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.” Does that sound right? It shouldn’t.

. . .The 113th Congress is rich with diversity. As an interfaith activist, I am glad to see the religious composition of Congress more closely reflect the diversity of America. As a queer person, I’m glad that LGBT Americans are seeing greater representation in Washington.

But as a proud atheist and humanist, I’m disheartened that the only member of Congress who openly identifies as nonreligious has forcefully distanced herself from atheism in a way that puts down those of us who do not believe in God.

We are Americans of good character, too.

That’s about the most sensible thing that Stedman has ever said. We atheists need to stop thinking that if someone kisses up to the religious, or says something that we don’t like, that henceforth everything that they say is either tainted or wrong. That’s a mistake that one reader made about Pat Condell this morning, and it’s a mistake that people constantly make about Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Just because they take some stands that people find offensive, they’re immediately written off in toto. This is particularly true for Harris, whose entire corpus is dismissed because people don’t like what he said about torture or racial profiling. Don’t forget that even when you disagree with him, he makes you think, and that’s a good thing. And, more important, think of his immense contributions in writing The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation—both seminal documents of New Atheism.

Look, nobody is right all the time, and it’s a serious mistake to dismiss someone because he’s been wrong—or has disagreed with you. What’s important in our cause are ideas, which must be examined one by one with reason and logic, and not the people who expressed them.


Oh, and if you consider yourself a “nonbeliever” or an “agnostic,” try telling people you’re an “atheist” next time, just to try that label on. It’s the only way that its connotations—that the bearers have horns and a tail—can be dispelled.

Kyrsten Sinema, really an atheist
Kyrsten Sinema, really an atheist

206 thoughts on “Atheists who won’t admit it: 2. Kyrsten Sinema

    1. And it took him decades in office in one of the safest seats in the country – to which he was repeatedly elected without his electorate knowing of his atheism – before he came out. I don’t remember him being subjected to the same criticism – *despite the fact* that he insisted on calling himself a “Unitarian” in public, not an atheist, after he came out.

      I wonder why the double standard for Ms. Sinema?

      1. No double standard. I am not aware of anywhere that Pete Stark slurred atheists. Can you show where that happened?

    2. Pete Stark’s atheism is what caused him to lose his reelection. If you recall, Congress had a meaningless vote last year reaffirm the motto ‘In God we trust’ because, apparently it was in danger of being forgotten if Congress didn’t act immediately. Stark was one of about 8 or 9 representatives to vote against it. His opponent in the Democratic primary used that vote against him. His district is one of those uber-liberal districts that would never vote for a Republican, and yet even the ground zero of tolerance can’t tolerate an atheist. By the way, there is one Muslim congressman who had been elected and reelected, so they are one up on us there.

      1. Pete Stark’s atheism is what caused him to lose his reelection.

        Where did you get that idea? The main reasons Stark lost were California’s new “top two” open primary system (two Democrats ran against each other), and the way his district lines were redrawn. Also, at 80 years old he seemed to implode on the campaign trail, accusing his opponent of taking bribes (he had to apologize for this), and other loose cannon remarks. His atheism was well known for years and was hardly an issue.

    1. It’s tiresome. Either you don’t know whether you have faith or not and then you’re an agnost or you don’t have faith and then you’re an atheist. Let’s keep things simple.

    2. I don’t think anyone claimed that there would be something wrong with that. What people think is wrong is to imply that those of us who proudly use the “A” word (or non-believer or non-theist in this case) are somehow “unbefitting”.

      1. Well, I hate to say it, but perhaps she does not want to be identified with the movement, however she is a non believer. You can’t honestly say that atheists have bad reputations for no reason. I think that the only people who can change that stereotype are the ones who identify themselves as atheists, with a capital ‘A’.

        Sorry, I’m just being honest here.

        1. You can’t honestly say that atheists have bad reputations for no reason.

          Yes I can. And I don’t appreciate the insult.

            1. Really? Perhaps you’d be in the mood to amplify your remark?

              You’re saying that rejecting your stipulation, that atheists have “bad reputations” is why atheists have “bad reputations”?

              1. Ok. This article is asserting that public figures should identify themselves as atheists and not non theists in order to help defeat the stereotype of atheists with big horns. Clearly, someone here is admitting that there IS this stereotype.
                1. problem identified
                2. solution suggested.

                Full stop.

              2. If anyone is asserting that there is an “atheist” stereotype, it’s you.

                You’ve asserted that atheists have bad reputations, but haven’t provided so much as a comma to describe what you mean by that, let a lone a speck of evidence to support your contention.

                There’s a big logic fail here.

        2. You can’t honestly say that atheists have bad reputations for no reason.

          You’re right, there is a reason, and that reason is that believers find atheists deeply unsettling. If all you have is faith then the mere existence of people without religious faith is very uncomfortable, and thus you need to demonize such people.

        3. Are you saying that you think atheists have bad reputations for valid reasons? You don’t think it is likely that she is denying a perfectly valid descriptor because doing so promotes her interests?

          Just to be clear, could you maybe state some of the reasons you think atheists have bad reputations, and whether or not you think those reasons are valid or sufficient?

          I can’t speak for other atheists but I can say, without reservation, that I think the bad reputation that atheists have in my culture is unwarranted, and furthermore unethical. It is at its base a reaction to fear of the other encouraged, often explicitly, by religion.

          Let’s be clear about this. One of the main reasons that people who’s interests are dependent on public opinion reject the term atheist is because there is a sizable percentage of the population that “believe” that atheism is immoral, and they believe that because that is part of their religious tradition.

        4. Stedman isn’t complaining that she chooses to call herself something else. He’s complaining that her office said that the label atheist is not befitting her moral character.

          A PR statement like “(Rep. Sinema) believes the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not accurate descriptions of her beliefs” would have been just fine.

          There was simply no need for her office to imply (or go along with the common religious trope) that atheism is a sign of low moral character. It was an unnecessary and completely irrelevant pot shot. Non-theists, atheists, and nonbelievers can certainly complain about that pot shot.

        5. You can’t honestly say that atheists have bad reputations for no reason.

          Yes, atheists have a bad reputation.
          No, there is no good reason for this.
          If you claim otherwise, it would be polite to at least justify your opinion.

        6. I agree, no one can “honestly say that atheists have bad reputations for no reason”. Of course, the reason is that there are a lot of people out there who are bigots, with a capital “B”.

    3. Er… no she doesn’t. “‘(Rep. Sinema) believes the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.’” [my emphasis]

      Aside: Has anyone asked her why?


  1. You’re right. That is specially true of Sam Harris, who by the way just published two brilliant articles on his website about guns and violence in which he highlights arguments from the right that just happen to be true, but because they come from conservatives people dismisses them pre-emtively out of hand.

    1. I thought his essay was very well thought out and its purpose served to invite some critical thinking regarding the issue, highlighting that it is a complex issue.

      1. Really? I thought this was probably the least critically thought out piece Harris has ever done. Eric MacDonald offers a point by point refutation, and Sean Faircloth exposes his bogus rationale and evidence cherry-picking. This piece by Harris is an embarassment for someone who has made their name as a critical thinker.

        1. Eric MacDonald offers a point by point refutation,

          I don’t think McDonald “refutes” any of Sam Harris’s points. Harris responds to his critics on this issue here. I agree with Heber that Harris’s pieces on gun violence and gun control are very good. His position is very similar to mine. He’s not necessarily against gun control, but he is very skeptical that it will do much, if any, good. The evidence just isn’t there.

          1. All those countries with restrictive guns laws and few gun deaths don’t exist? I live in one, Australia.

          2. All those countries with restrictive guns laws and few gun deaths don’t exist? I live in one, Australia.

            Did you read Harris’s piece at the link I just posted? Because he addresses this argument explicitly. Here are his main points:

            1. The effects of gun law reforms in Australia and elsewhere are ambiguous (see his link for elaboration).

            2. Although Australia and other countries with restrictive guns laws have much lower homicide rates than the U.S., they appear to have much higher assault rates. One possible reason for this is that the high rate of gun possession in the U.S. is a significant deterrent to assault.

            3. It is highly implausible that restrictions similar to those in Australia are politically feasible in the U.S., or will be in the foreseeable future. The U.S. has about 300 million privately-held guns — far more both in absolute numbers and per capita than Australia had before its reforms — and a much more entrenched culture of gun ownership and gun rights.

            4. The violent crime rate has declined dramatically in the U.S. over the past few decades despite all our guns, and despite the fact that laws regulating the carrying of guns in public have generally become *less* restrictive, not more.

        2. If I had read Faircloth’s response before what Harris wrote, I’d have a distinctly low opinion of the latter. As it happens, I read Harris first, and that made it obvious that Faircloth misrepresented him pretty badly on many points.

          You can disagree with what Harris wrote, but there was not a jot of it that was unsupported or unreasonable.

          1. Yes, I get it. Harris likes to shoot guns, he thinks more guns equals a safer society, he likes the NRA proposal to put armed guards in schools – if you think these are reasonable arguments then you’ll like his article. If you think the argument that more kids die in swimming pool accidents than die by gunfire is a reason to do nothing about the availability of guns, then you’ll like his article. Harris sneeringly dismisses the arguments of the “liberal elite” if they mispronounce the name of a gun, or can’t specify the difference between automatic and semi-automatic – if you think that’s reasonable, well, fine.

            Harris admits not everyone should own a gun, but he sees, “nothing irrational about judging oneself to be psychologically stable and fully committed to the safe handling and ethical use of firearms.” So everyone should just judge for themselves whether they are “psychologically stable.” In other words, let’s just keep things the way they are, after all, it’s working so well.

            1. It’s your attitude towards Harris that’s sneering and dismissive. He provides clear, rational, evidence-based arguments for his positions on guns. To refute those arguments, you’re going to have to do more than dismiss him as someone who “likes to shoot guns.” And like McDonald and Faircloth, you are egregiously misrepresenting what Harris wrote. He doesn’t say we should “do nothing about the availability of guns.” He doesn’t “dismiss the arguments of the ‘liberal elite’ if they mispronounce the name of a gun.” He doesn’t say that everyone is qualified to judge whether they are psychologically stable. You have just invented these positions out of thin air and falsely attributed them to Harris. I can only assume this is because you have no response to his actual arguments.

              1. Gary W:

                He doesn’t “dismiss the arguments of the ‘liberal elite’ if they mispronounce the name of a gun.”
                Of course he does.

                “I can only imagine the mirth it has brought gun-rights zealots to see “automatic” and “semi-automatic” routinely confused, or to hear a major news anchor ominously declare that the shooter had been armed with a “Sig Sauzer” pistol. This has been more than embarrassing. It has offered a thousand points of proof that “liberal elites” don’t know anything about what matters when bullets start flying.”

                Obviously, what matters to Harris, when bullets start flying, is definition and spelling and those “liberal elites” just don’t have a clue. Just because you’re one of the gun-rights zealots he admires doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read his post.

                Gary W:
                He doesn’t say that everyone is qualified to judge whether they are psychologically stable.

                Again, that’s exactly what he says in the quote I give above. When he says there is “nothing irrational about judging oneself to be psychologically stable,” who is he talking about, if not everyone? Just himself? That makes no sense.

                He doesn’t say we should “do nothing about the availability of guns.”

                Running through the whole piece is the theme that all “good” people should have guns, their availability shouldn’t be restricted, and how beneficial this is to society. Just how he arrives at who deserves to be classified as “good” is less clear. Besides himself, of course.

              2. Of course he does.

                No, he doesn’t. Nowhere in the text you quote, or anywhere else, does Harris “dismiss the arguments of the ‘liberal elite’.” That is pure invention on your part. Harris is making the valid point that “liberal elites” are often ignorant of basic facts about guns, such as the difference between semi-automatic and automatic firearms, that are important to gun control laws.

                When he says there is “nothing irrational about judging oneself to be psychologically stable,” who is he talking about, if not everyone?

                He’s talking about people who actually *are* psychologically stable. Hence his qualification “if, indeed, one is,” which you conveniently omitted from your quote.

                I think it’s obvious at this point that you are unable to actually rebut Harris’s arguments, which is why you’re resorting to quote-doctoring and misrepresentation in an effort to smear him.

              3. Obvious to a gun-rights zealot. So when Harris says, after ridiculing those liberal elites for not knowing the names of guns, that this “has offered a thousand points of proof that “liberal elites” don’t know anything about what matters when bullets start flying,” just what are those thousand points of proof proving? Those elites don’t know anything about what matters, but he’s not dismissing their arguments? He must be saying something, what could it be? If they don’t know anything about what matters, it seems pretty clear that he’s dismissing their arguments and anything else they might have to say.

              4. If the gun nuts think the problem has something to do with whether a gun fires several (or dozens) of rounds a second while you hold the trigger or “only” a few rounds a second because you have to pull the trigger for each round, then they’re the ones not qualified and / or too stupid to understand the problem.

                The general public has no need of automatic weapons of any type (semi, full, selective, whatever) nor or weapons that can fire more than a few shots before needing to be reloaded. Cap the tech at the M1903. If you can’t hunt with that, if you can’t “take care of” your home invasion with that, a gun ain’t gonna do you no good nohow.

                Personally, I think the solution is to strictly regulate the manufacture and sale of casings. ‘Twon’t be long before the guns themselves become useless. Without casings, you’re back to flintlocks (etc.) for your firearms, and I’m cool with anybody who wants a flintlock having one. Manufacture to modern standards (precision, rifling, etc.) and it’ll again be wonderfully suited to hunting, personal defense (as much as any gun is suited to that), and the like.



              5. just what are those thousand points of proof proving?

                That liberal elites are often ignorant of basic and important facts about guns. That tends to lead to irrational laws like the 1994 assault weapons ban, which targetted guns more on the basis of their appearance than their actual risk. As Harris says, “the kinds of guns used in the vast majority of crimes would not fall under any plausible weapons ban” and “the most common and least stigmatized weapons are among the most dangerous.”

  2. Not sure how no religious affiliation makes her an atheist. The simplest interpretation is that she subscribes to no organized religion, but she might still believe in God.

    1. “non-theist” but might still believe in God.? That’s similar to a stamp non-collector, who might still be found in possession of stamps.

      Perhaps she is a Wiccan or Buddhist? Those labels would give her a “Woo” factor that might be even more dangerous, politically.

      As physicist Sean Carroll does, some prefer the description “Naturalist” over Atheist, because of the baggage that “Atheist” carries in our current society. I told my wife to use naturalist, because she doesn’t like being lumped with Hitchens, et. al. I have on occasion used it as an elaboration of my own beliefs, because people often (at parties, on public transit, u.s.w.) will rejoinder with “Oh, an atheist! So, you don’t believe in anything!” (<< wearisome, how often this is trotted out). With no time for a lengthy discussion, I find it more appropriate to steer the view toward "the Natural world" as to what I hold to be true, as contrasted with all things "super-natural".

      Some object because of dual connotations with "Naturalist", but, same with "Photographer". I do take lots of pictures, so I am a photographer, but selling photographs is not my source of income.

      1. When you use the word “naturalist” does anyone mistake you for someone who runs around in the woods without clothing?

      2. “non-theist” but might still believe in God.? That’s similar to a stamp non-collector, who might still be found in possession of stamps.

        Did Sinema identify herself as a “non-theist?” The article states that she described her “religious affiliation” as “none,” which to me implies that she does not identify with an organized religion. That’s not the same thing as being a “non-theist.”

        I do agree with Stedman that her campaign’s “not befitting” comment is a slam against atheists and non-believers, and she deserves to be criticized for it. But overall I’m inclined to cut her some slack. I think she deserves some credit for being open about her sexuality and the first congresscritter to explicitly declare no religious affiliation.

      3. There are three distinct axes that too often get conflated by those on any and all “sides” in these discussions:


        They are not the same. They can overlap.

    1. And maybe he/she meant “golden” or “surly” or “long-legged”. We can only go by the words people use.

      1. “Not accurate” is one meaning of unbecoming, so it’s not a stretch to consider that a possible interpretation of what was said.

        1. The “unbecoming” part becomes an issue because it is paired up with “personal character”. I don’t think it is a stretch to interpret it as it is was received, as a casual slur. I doubt that any slur was intended. But folks who make other types of casual slur (gender, race, etc.) expect to be called on it. No different here.

    2. Her campaign spokesperson did not say “unbecoming”, she said “not befitting”. It is at least plausible that the term was poorly chosen rather than intended as an insult, something that would fly in the face of Sinema’s record. It is also important to note that the spokesperson said that Rep Sinema prefers to use the term “secular approach” to characterize her politics.

      Ms Sinema grew up in a Mormon household, and is openly bisexual as well as openly nontheist. She is also a staunch supporter of science and evidence-based policy.

      It seems to me ill-thought to target her for a perceived slight that to some of us at least does not appear to be intended as a slight at all. Singling her out as somehow a traitor to the cause seems particularly counterproductive.

      1. Don’t misunderstand us. Or at least, don’t misunderstand me. I am greatly pleased by Ms. Sinema’s election. It is great. She deserves a lot of support and I’ll probably end up sending her a donation the next election cycle even though I live in a far-distant state.

        This is not a matter of singling her out a a traitor. It is about responding to a very common and deeply-rooted form of bigotry that exists in our country. Those of us who are working to change it need to raise awareness of the casual slurs that happen all the time. The civil rights movement, gay rights movement, women’s movements all have confronted similar concerns. This is not about bashing Ms. Sinema. But her spokesperson made a statement that denigrates atheists and there is no reason why we shouldn’t object.

    3. Say you’re right and “not accurate” is what was meant. That still leaves the question of why she mentioned “personal character” at all. The unavoidable implication is that nonbelievers (whatever you choose to call them) are somehow lacking in character, and it’s that implication that we’re objecting to.

  3. Mr. Coyne;

    I enjoy reading this blog of yours, but your comments on David Bryant and “Atheists who won’t admit it” helped bring into focus a question I have. You added to the topic with this post on Kyrsten Sinema.

    I consider myself a doubter and not an atheist. I struggle with whether I should just declare (at least privately) that I am an atheist, and yet I cannot, no more than I could convince myself to believe.

    The question I have is: What is the Urgency of Atheism? Why should someone like David Bryant feel any need to abandon his apophatic stance in favor of outright atheism? Why should I feel any need to decide to abandon my doubter stance in favor of embracing atheism?

    LET ME BE CLEAR: none of my comments are about “stridency”. One person’s stridency is another person’s persistence and forceful clarity. No, my question is about urgency: why ever abandon doubt in favor of atheism? “Stridency” is a red-herring.

    I can understand why believers feel an urgency to convert others: they believe that their God makes demands on our conduct and belief, and therefore it is essential to reform one’s belief and behavior while one still has time to satisfy the god’s demands. Regardless of whether one shares those beliefs or not, GIVEN THOSE BELIEFS a sense of urgency is reasonable.

    If atheists are correct, there is no god who has any commands for us nor expectations of us. Therefore, if one has reached the stage of being a doubter, I can see no urgency to “move on” to atheism. Obviously there might be some urgency in freeing people from the constraints of false religious belief, but if you’ve reached this doubter/apophatic/agnostic stage, you’re pretty much as self-liberated from religious constraints as you will ever be. So what is the urgency of going further?

    Whether one labels their position as doubter, agnostic, or apophatic is neither here nor there; it matters not that one might be “a hairsbreadth from nonbelief”, what is the urgency in moving from “I know nothing about any god” to “I believe there is no god”? I see no advantage. I see no gain. There is, to the best of my knowledge, no opportunity cost to simply remaining a doubter.

    In fact, I see a reason to remain a doubter: atheism and theism both take their beliefs beyond the evidence. I realize there is zero evidence that any god does exist. But I also realize that absence of evidence is not PROOF of absence. If God is a sentient person whose existence extends far beyond nature (as Christians believe) then God could choose to not reveal his presence to us. I also realize that this Christian belief is totally untestable and unverifiable (just in case those terms are not co-extensive). I realize that it is possible that every claimed encounter with a god or other supernatural entity is complete bullshit. But I know also I cannot prove that they all are or were; there are too many of these claims to examine them all. A single black swan is all one needs… I truly just don’t know, and it seems to me that atheism is a claim TO KNOW; a claim that exceeds the actual evidence.

    Atheism might be right, but even if so, what’s the urgency? Why not continue to be a doubter?

    1. “Why should someone like David Bryant feel any need to abandon his apophatic stance in favor of outright atheism?”

      Two reasons.

      1) Honesty.

      2) To detoxify the label “atheist” which is used infrequently because people don’t want to be thought to have horns. As long as actual-atheists allow this word to imply something bad, then all of us live with the consequences of being marginalized.

            1. You’re just “being honest”, but you’re also failing to say anything else.

              You don’t seem unwilling to be insulting, or, as you put it, “honest”.

              Why do you think atheist have bad reputations?
              Why do you think that atheists have horns?
              What is your problem with atheists?

              1. Are you people serious? Are you going to be intellectually honest and critique your own movement that you are concerned about as having a bad reputation? Look at your movement. Look at the necessity of Atheism plus being voiced. If you can not understand how, for one example, that billboard in Times Square over the holidays is tactless and crass, then I can not spell it our for you any further.

              2. Nor should you. Please stop posting on this thread. You’ve had your say, as I mentioned above.

        1. Perhaps you could explain why you think atheists are thought of as having horns. That would start the ball rolling.

        2. Jennifer, there is a very simple answer to that. Read the Bible (the book 80% of the US population take to be the word of God) and see what it says about, not just atheists, but doubters too. Now you understand why atheists are thought of as having horns? How is considering this helpful?

              1. Actually, I’m just an atheist whose first name is ‘Christian’. I’ve been using that name on other boards as well. Hope it’s not too confusing 😉
                My parents choosing this name had more to do with this chap rather than the religion. Of course they made slight adjustments to the Afrikaans spelling.

    2. I don’t know what you mean by “doubter.” Do you believe in god(s) or don’t you? If you don’t, you’re an atheist.

    3. But I also realize that absence of evidence is not PROOF of absence.

      It is when you’ve searched the entire space.

      For example, the absence of evidence for a rampaging herd of angry hippopotamuses crashing around you as you read these words is proof of their absence.

      Similarly, as Epicurus figured out centuries before the Christians invented yet another hero cast in the mold of a death / resurrection / salvation Pagan demigod, we have proof that there are no entities with both the ability and the desire to, for example, end human suffering (or even noticeably alleviate it). Since virtually every god worshipped today is said to be all-powerful and all-loving, we have proof that no such gods exist. (And, no, “freedom willies” is not an answer; it’s merely a label given to the incompetence and / or callousness of the gods in question.)

      There are lots of other reasons why we can know with absolute confidence that the gods are figments of our imagination, just like any other superhero from any other faery tale…for example, the gods themselves are said to be nothing if they can’t do the impossible — perform miracles. Well, that’s as self-defeating a definition as one can come up with.

      Whether or you you want others to know that you’ve grown up enough to not need to hang on to your imaginary friends is up to you.



    4. Sean, do you remain a doubter about the existence of Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy? What makes God-agnosticism any more respectable than leprechaun-agnosticism?

    5. Sean, since you don’t believe in god you are an atheist. Since you think it possible a god might exist you are an agnostic atheist. It’s as simple as that.

    6. sean samis #7 wrote:

      Atheism might be right, but even if so, what’s the urgency? Why not continue to be a doubter?

      There is no urgency. If you’ve gotten to the point where you can ask that question, then you’ve already doubted your way to atheism. You can relax.

      As for the ‘urgency’ towards questioning people like David Bryant, a good part of the concern is for clarity, integrity, and truth. It’s not personal. But obfuscation to avoid an obvious conclusion helps to continue the stigmatizing of people who are not willing to obfuscate.

      It’s maybe a little bit like dealing with a man who has sex with other men and yet insists that no, he is neither gay nor bisexual because he does NOT mentally have sex with other men — and doing this is a higher form and expression of heterosexuality. Do not be surprised if the gay community is not pleased by the confusing and fuzzy compromise.

      1. Sastra;

        You wrote that I’ve “already doubted your way to atheism”. No, I have found myself outside of theism, but I don’t think atheism is a useful or accurate term for all that remains.

        If David Bryant believes in God in any way, he is simply not an atheist. As long as he is honest when he describes what he believes, he exhibits “clarity, integrity, and truth”. No one has to agree with him, but maintaining a belief is far different from dissembling about conduct (as your example is). As far as I can see, David Bryant does believe in God, so he is not doing one thing (believing there is no god) while claiming another (that he is a theist). From Coyne’s description, Bryant is still a theist.

        Bryant’s beliefs about God may be quirky, but that is his privilege, and as I asked before: what is the urgency of him changing his belief? None that I know of.

  4. Maybe she just doesn’t want her life and career to be defined by her religious stance instead of her actions and political convictions.

    1. If you read the article, you’ll see that ‘declaring her stance’ wasn’t the point. She may very well be “spiritual, not religious” and thus not an atheist (or nontheist or nonbeliever) at all. The problem is that she appears to be saying that she isn’t an atheist because she is too moral to be one of those.

      It would be like someone complaining that they were being deeply insulted and slandered by false accusations of bi-sexuality — instead of just saying no, they’re heterosexual.

      What we’re really hoping for is a kneejerk “I’m not an atheist — not that there is anything wrong with that!” 😉

      1. Shirley, I think you mean she’s a turn in the left direction….

        Then again, hers is an urban district that encompasses Arizona State University. It might be the bluest part of the state.


  5. Regarding: “Oh, and if you consider yourself a “nonbeliever” or an “agnostic,” try telling people you’re an “atheist” next time, just to try that label on. It’s the only way that its connotations—that the bearers have horns and a tail—can be dispelled.

    Unless, of course, you’re just not an atheist. Why use the wrong word?

    1. Again, Stedman’s criticism was not really about her choice of label. It was about what she then said about atheist character.

      Had she simply said “I prefer to be called a doubter, as I haven’t really decided yet’ then she would probably not be getting the flak she’s getting. (She might still be getting flak from people who think such a statement is political pandering and insincere…but still, such a response is much much better than the one offered.)

  6. Rationally, each individual should be free to define themselves as they see fit. Rep Sinema didn’t run as a representative of atheism, she didn’t claim to champion atheists’ interests in the House, she wasn’t elected by an atheist campaign, so I see nothing wrong with respecting her individual choice of self-identification.

    As much as I would personally wish there we had more representation in elected office, I think it is a mistake to apply a purity test and treat someone who fails to label themselves as we do as worthy of condemnation.

    Even from a purely strategic POV, that seems foolish to me. Sinema’s historical record has shown her to be quite willing to demonstrate her support for freethought through action and presence at fora and other events explicitly linked to secular interests.

    In other words, we should patiently judge Rep Sinema by her actions, not by her choice of label. And, we certainly should not present her with some kind of ultimatum – use our label or earn our wrath. We need more allies in Congress, not fewer.

    1. I cannot understand why people seem unable or unwilling to understand that nobody is saying Rep Sinema (or anyone else) shouldn’t self-identify as anything they like. NOBODY IS CLAIMING THAT. (sorry for shouting)

      The objection is to the way the rest of us are shown disrespect because of the word we choose to use for accuracy. When someone like Rep Sinema’s rep says atheists are “unbecoming” they are insulting us. That is wrong. That is what we object to.

      Why is this so hard to get?

      1. Perhaps you should then consider it a critique and not an insult. Atheists notoriously insult theists all of the time. Perhaps there IS a very unbecoming element within the movement.

        1. Could you provide an example of what you mean by a “notorious” insult by an atheist to a theist?

          I think you’re perpetrating an “everybody knows” fallacy. Did you wander in to this science website by mistake?

        2. Not nearly as often as religious people go after atheists.

          I think we’ve heard enough out of you on this post, Jennifer. Why don’t you talk about the more “unbecoming” elements in the religious movement.

          You’ve said enough here, having posted too many times on a single thread.

        3. You couldn’t have it more wrong. People insult other people all the time. The problem with your claim is the disparity in numbers. Insulting theists outnumber insulting atheists by at least two orders of magnitude. Your claim is ridiculous. Surly you are not ignorant of the actual reasons that believers don’t like atheists?

      2. gbjames wrote:

        The objection is to the way the rest of us are shown disrespect because of the word we choose to use for accuracy. When someone like Rep Sinema’s rep says atheists are “unbecoming” they are insulting us. That is wrong. That is what we object to.
        Why is this so hard to get?

        I think people are having problems getting the point of Jerry’s post because his title has nothing to do with the point of his post.

        They’re answering the implications of the title, that Sinema is an atheist and won’t admit it …. but should.

        In this example, it’s irrelevant whether Sinema is an atheist, a New Ager, or someone who says they have no religion because they have a personal relationship with Jesus.

  7. Perhaps it’s because the title of Jerry’s post is “atheists who won’t admit it”.

    Perhaps because it opens by saying, “The thing is, she’s timorous about admitting it.”

    Perhaps because Jerry approvingly quotes Steadman saying, “there’s a slight issue: Sinema doesn’t actually appears to be a nonbeliever.”

    And, “If you live in the U.S., you’ll know why her campaign made that statement. If you’re identified as a nonbeliever in our country, and don’t keep mum about it. you’re political dead meat. ” – right after noting her campaign made the statement *after she won election*, not before – if they were desperate to hide her atheism, why didn’t she deny attending atheist conferences – she was certainly attacked by the Right for it?

    The entire post seems to explicitly deny her the legitimacy of her own self-definition: she is either a self-hating atheist, or a pretend-atheist.

    Maybe that is why your assertion is “so hard to get” – it doesn’t match the post.

    1. I got to the end and figured out that reply was to me.

      None of Jerry’s words assert that she, or anyone, can’t self-describe as an elephant if they like. The comments are about how someone expresses what they is NOT and why they do so.

      An atheist who denies being an atheist is doing so for one or more reasons. When atheists decry the word and slur “out” atheists, they empower the religious bigots who have a chokehold on public policy. That is what the discussion is about.

    2. And, “If you live in the U.S., you’ll know why her campaign made that statement. If you’re identified as a nonbeliever in our country, and don’t keep mum about it. you’re political dead meat.

      I’m sure everyone here knows that. But if she didn’t want to be identified as a nonbeliever why did she describe her religious affiliation as “none”?
      Why didn’t she do what every other closeted atheist in US politics does: pretend you are religious (in most cases the religion of your parents or spouse), swear on a holy book and be done with it? Even if it’s one of the kookier denominations you won’t have to deal with any suspicions of a bigoted electorate that you’re one of them “eeevil atheists”.

  8. “And, at CNN, Stedman has called out Sinema (who, to be sure, is courageous in confessing her bisexuality) for refusing to admit her atheism.”

    No he didn’t. He called out Sinema for implying that there is something unbefitting about the lives and characters of atheists or nonbelievers.

    Since when does ‘non-religious’ equate to not believing in a God?

  9. “(Rep. Sinema) believes the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”

    I don’t understand at all why Stedman concludes that this statement “implies there is something unbefitting about the lives and characters of atheists or nonbelievers.” It is a comment about her own life, not those of others. There is no value judgment involved.

    His analogy of the title Muslim is even worse. Of course a statement such as “[Rep. Sinema] believes the term Muslim is not befitting of her life’s work or personal character” wouldn’t sound right. But this is not because it implies an offensive attitude toward Muslims. It wouldn’t sound right because she’s not a Muslim!

    1. adj. unbefitting – not befitting; “behavior unbefitting a father”

      inappropriate – not suitable for a particular occasion etc; “noise seems inappropriate at a time of sadness”; “inappropriate shoes for a walk on the beach”; “put inappropriate pressure on them”

      It can not help but be heard as a comment on others. Without that aspect the word would have no meaning.

    2. So, if I say “comparing my reading comprehension skills to that of Brett Maiden is not befitting of my life’s work or personal character,” you will not take that as an insult, right? After all, according to your logic I’m just saying something about my reading comprehension skills, not those of others.

      See the problem now?

    3. Of course, in her case ‘Mormon’ would have been more appropriate than ‘Muslim’ since it’s very unlikely that she has any affiliation to the Muslim religion or that she has any relatives of that faith.

      President Obama, on the other hand, had a Muslim father and a very Muslim/Arabic sounding name. He’s therefore been suspected of being a Muslim (esp. by kooks and religious nuts on the right fringe).
      Now imagine all the fecal matter in the ventilation if he had used the above lines to repudiate this allegation.

  10. Maybe Sinema is a theist after all. Who claimed her as a nontheist? Maybe she prays to some god of no particular affiliation. Yeah that’s probably it.

  11. Atheism for me is a belief, not a cause. If I wanted others to tell me how I should behave, or what words I should use, or that I should go out and proselytize my belief, I’d have joined a church.

  12. lol. Interfaith simply means finding common ground with the shit people make up.

    I guess in comic book terms, it’s what happens when the DC and Marvel Universes are merged.

  13. The problem highlighted in this article is a common one. People who are atheists who won’t bite the bullet and just admit it because of the negative connotations attached to the word. One of the most important things The God Delusion (maybe some of the readers of this website have heard of it?) taught me was that “atheist” does not have negative connotations, nor should it.
    As to Sam Harris, he in many ways is my favorite of the Gnu Atheists. In an attempt to make us rethink or clarify our positions, he is willing to “go there.” He will take controversial positions to make us reflect on our own, championing the idea that no subjects should be taboo in reasoned discourse. And no one is more committed to science and reason than he.

  14. Sinema apparently needs to give Stedman a quitclaim deed to her life, and to genuflect before him and defer to his omniscient opinionating.

    Has Stedman similarly bloviated about Pete Stark?

    Everybody rides the bucking horse better than the gal riding it.

  15. The general tendency here to say, “if you believe x, then you are a y, no matter how you choose to define yourself” is rather disappointing. People have a fundamental right to define themselves.

    While I am a hard/strong atheist myself, I see the dismay of the majority or atheists when theists insist that atheists “believe there is no god” rather than simply lacking that belief.

    Why do we feel free to apply the same intolerance and disrespect for other people’s self-identity?

    1. If I choose to self-identify as “the smartest and most popular commenter on this site”, don’t you think the other commenters are entitled to take issue with that?

      By the same token, if somebody self-identifies as “not an atheist, because atheists are such jerks”, then they should expect some blowback from people who do self-identify as atheists.

    2. Hmm, I just wonder what to make of those who believe in a personal god but insist that they are not theists.

    3. There are two ways to express one’s self-identity.

      One is to simply describe yourself. The other is to do so and include a slur on other people, the “I’m NOT one of THOSE” form.

      Nobody here is talking about the first kind of self-identification.

  16. Imagine—she wouldn’t be sworn in on a Bible!

    Surely it’s not beyond the wit of man to come up with an atheist Bible for her to be sworn in on?
    Or have I misunderstood something about this religion thing?

      1. Quite possibly. If it’s a pile of tilting at the windmills of religion, I’d probably go and read Don Quixote first (and that’s deeper in the “to read” pile than Moby Dick). If it’s got novel or interesting science in it, then it might be worth reading in it’s own right.

          1. Disappointed? A book about religion that consists of tilting at useless non-existant windmills which the religious thinks (a) exist and (b) are important, an I’m meant to be disappointed? It’s just something that I’ve got more important things to do. As the old joke goes, “other dogs to wash and other kettles of fish to fry.”
            I was of course, being sarcastic about the atheist Bible. Though hearing some of the cat fighting coming out of the Church of England General Synod, I wouldn’t entirely rule out the possibility of the ghod-squad producing such a thing non-sarcastically. Which was, I think, JAC’s point in “Athiests who won’t admit it – part 1”

  17. This seems as good a place as any, since it was mentioned earlier, but where exactly do atheists derive a sense of morality. I’ve thought about it quite a bit and did some googling but I still don’t see where morality from first principles comes for an atheist.

    1. Morality is nothing more nor less than an optimal strategy (in the sense of game theory) for an individual to adopt.

      For example, going around raping and killing and stealing isn’t going to do you much good in the long term — or, for that matter, even the medium term and probably not even short term. You’re going to get caught and any other plans you might have, including more raping and killing and stealing, are going to get cut short. You can even imagine a society in which everybody does that; the people who form a mutual defense agreement that includes non-aggression towards each other are going to out-survive and out-compete everybody else. Even better, pretty soon, the violent ones aren’t as much of a threat and the resources that had been put into defending against them can be put to better use.

      You can analyze pretty much anything else in a similar manner. If you want your neighbor to pick up your mail for you when you go on vacation, you should provide some incentive, such as picking up her mail for her when she goes on vacation — else, what’s in it for her?

      It takes very little to derive a very solid morality from first principles such as that. Even if your goal is to become a Bond villain and destroy the world…you’re still going to need to hire all those henchmen, and you’re going to have to treat them well for long enough for them to do your bidding…and it’s not long before there’s just no way to complete a task of that scale because you yourself need to build an indestructible foundation in the first place just to get close.

      Are there parasites who gain advantage by gaming the system? Of course. But that’s a bug, not a feature. Our bodies’s immune systems aren’t perfect, either. Even if it takes more than a human lifetime for the balance to work itself out, you’re still going to improve your own chances of success (at whatever it is you want to succeed at) by being a productive member of a healthy society than by trying to parasitize it.

      And, yes. The 1% are a bunch of parasites, and we haven’t figured out how to pry the leeches off of us….



        1. Look not to his genetic descendants, but his “spiritual,” if you will, descendants.

          Hussein, Gaddafi, bin Laden…all dead. The actually successful powerful people these days aren’t raping and pillaging. Even Obama, despite all the blood on his hands, has a body count that pales in comparison with Khan or Hussein.



    2. There are no “first principles” of morality for either atheists or theists. There are only anthropological facts about what various societies deem to be moral or immoral, and explanations of those facts in terms of evolutionary and cultural history. Morality is not a philosophical absolute; it’s a phenomenon of human psychology.

      This does not mean anything goes. Atheists have the same evolved moral instincts as theists; the difference is that atheists recognize them for what they are, rather than trying to externalize and reify them as the dictates of some supreme moral authority.

      1. All of the replies can be summed up as “from their brain” — in association with the genes previously selected for and currently being selected for.

  18. Unless I missed something, none of the statements from her or her representative eliminate the possibility that she’s just a deist…or someone with vague new age beliefs.

  19. Well, we are talking about politics here. Politicians routinely make statements and then a week or two later, “clarify” them with laughable word games that eviscerate the clear meaning of the original statement. Even leaders everyone loves like Lincoln would do this.

    Politics and diplomacy is simply not the place for people who are more interested in blunt truth-telling than in subtle persuasion. I would much rather have a norm in the United States where politicians simply do not talk about religion or theology at all. Sinema is pretty clearly a secularist and that’s fine with me. More politicians should follow her example. I don’t need to know her or anyone else’s theories about the afterlife and don’t care what they do with their weekends.

    1. Are you saying you think more politicians “should follow her example” of impugning the moral character of anyone who identifies as an atheist, non-theist, or non-believer?

      If she’d just said “I don’t identify as an atheist” or “I’ll stand up for the separation of church and state, but my religious beliefs are private and shouldn’t matter.” I wouldn’t have had a problem with it, but her saying those term are “not befitting of her life’s work or personal character” is another matter entirely.

  20. Congresswoman Sinema won’t be sworn in on the Bible, and guess what: neither will any other US Representative. Swearing in is done with your right hand up; no Bible, Constitution or other book is required. Some reps like to carry a Bible with them to show how pious they are and to get their picture taken with it and the speaker of the House, but it’s not part of the official swearing in. Remember the hoopla and hysteria caused by Keith Ellison, the first Muslim congressman, when he carried Tom Jefferson’s copy of the Koran during the swearing in ceremony:

  21. Can you believe there is a well known skeptic blog which commentariat has been hijacked by a bunch of right-wing atheists that spew the hideous trope that we have to keep atheists away from power because of what they (we) did in the twentieth century (Stalin, Mao, Pol-Pot)? There you find gems like this: “I’m an atheist, and I’d rather be an atheist in a society which is informed by Christian moral principles than an atheist in a society designed by atheists”.
    Concern trolling? I would think so if it didn’t come from regulars.
    Take a look:

  22. When I tell people I am a nonbeliever the vast majority of the time people respond by saying, “Oh you mean your on of those atheists?” I then respond with a resounding absolutely. I have no reason to be ashamed of the fact that I am not deluded by something as ridiculous as religious relief.

  23. All in all I’m just glad I live in Europe, where this problem is almost nonexistent.

    Almost because at least here in the UK it still seems that people prefer openly and sycophantically religious politicians over open atheists. Look where that got the country, by the way.
    (At the latest general election Cameron was openly flouting his beliefs while Clegg, an atheist, was very vague and wishy-washy about it).

  24. Let me clarify something an earlier comment of mine may have muddied. I don’t think KNOWLEDGE has much to do with this topic because there is little or no evidence either way. In my mind, a theist is someone who believes in one or more gods. An atheist is someone who believes there are no gods. I am a doubter: I have no belief either way, and doubt claims by theists and atheists.

    I don’t believe in any god, but I also don’t believe there is no god. How is this possible? It obviously seems paradoxical. But it is not (in my case at least) because I cannot accept either belief as true, and I doubt both. I lack any information or evidence in support of either claim. I am a doubter, I lack the certainty of the theist or the atheist. In the absence of evidence, I see no reason (much less urgency) to adopt any conclusion. This is why I am not an atheist, and why I am a doubter.

    Many comments to my earlier posts assert that everyone who does not believe in God or gods must be included in the term “atheist”. If mere doubting is the same as atheism, then all the passion and angst of this thread seems doubly odd. If atheism only doubts the existence of god without asserting it, why care about others who have similar doubts but in a different form?

    What standing do I have to say that I am not an atheist? What standing do I need? I am not an atheist for the following reasons:

    First, if (as some insist) any lack of belief is “atheism” then this entire exchange becomes a dispute over a label: am I an X or a Y? And who has standing to require me to use a particular label? Is this really a poe-tay-toe/poe-tah-toe argument?

    Second: Atheism has no Pope, so its definition is pretty much set by semantics. One might object, saying that atheism is not merely defined by the dictionary, but if not the dictionary, who? Again: there is no official Atheist Ecclesia handing down official doctrine. So If I say I am not an atheist, then I have standing to hold to that in the face of universal disagreement.

    Third: I look to dictionary definitions. These seem like workable definitions to me:

    a•the•ism – noun
    1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
    2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

    dis•be•lief – noun
    1. the inability or refusal to believe or to accept something as true.
    2. amazement; astonishment

    doubt – verb (used with object)
    1. to be uncertain about; consider questionable or unlikely; hesitate to believe.
    2. to distrust.
    – verb (used without object)
    4. to be uncertain about something; be undecided in opinion or belief.
    5. a feeling of uncertainty about the truth, reality, or nature of something.

    (some elements omitted)

    As I said above: I am not an atheist, I am uncertain about gods, I hesitate to believe (because there is no evidence either way); I am undecided and uncertain about the truth, reality or nature of God. I am unable to believe that there are gods and I am unable to believe there are no gods. I consider both questionable.

    Gary Kusnick asked the inevitable question: what make doubts about gods any more respectable than doubts about leprechauns, Santa Clause or the Tooth Fairy? It is the fact that this topic is treated differently in society. If leprechauns, Santa Clause or the Tooth Fairy were central to the beliefs of a large fraction of the population; belief, doubt and disbelief of them would be treated differently than it currently is.

    A final thought. The more I think about Rep. Sinema’s statement, the more I think this is a tempest in a teacup. It is reported here that here office said:

    (Rep. Sinema) believes the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.

    There is nothing in this about people, whether it is non-theists (like me), atheists, or non-believers (like me again), her comment is about the terms.

    I suspect this is a place where Hanlon’s Razor should apply: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Sinema’s statement is more likely clumsy than malicious.

    1. I don’t think many of us take Sinema’s comment as malicious. I am quite sure it wasn’t malicious. It was a casual un-thoughtful slur and there is nothing wrong with objecting to it. If it was a similar casual slur about Hispanics, gays, or women would you not object?

      Oh… and.. I just don’t think you have the definition of “Atheist” right. Most of us are smart enough to understand the problem of proving the negative. The “Not believing in god(s)” definition is closer to the target.

      1. gbjames,

        If your definition is correct, then the distinction between agnosticism (and/or simple doubt) and atheism is erased. That may be convenient for you, but erasing that distinction seems to be without purpose or benefit.

        If “proving a negative” is a problem, well then: deal with that problem. Logic does not give a pass just because a negative claim is hard to prove.

        You, of course are free to label yourself anything you want, but I have the same right to label myself, and I can justify my choice without con-fusing concepts.

        Also, if your definition is correct, then it seems odd to me that all the passion on this thread and on blog sites like this represents the strong feelings of people with no actual opinion about gods; which is the case if atheists merely don’t believe in something. My experience is that atheists do have an actual opinion about gods: that there are none. To just not believe in gods seems more neutral than what I see reflected in these comments.

        Mind you, I don’t object to the actual belief that there are no gods. I don’t share it, but it’s no skin off my nose. I only object to efforts to affix a label on me that I think is inappropriate.

        And as my first comment stated, I see no urgency in altering my opinion or adopting a label I think inappropriate. So far, no one’s explained what the urgency is to me.

        1. Common usage on teh innertubes amongst those who have no gods is for them to be perpendicular axes: theism / atheism for with / without gods, and gnosticism / agnosticism for with / without belief. (And, yes, there’s an unrelated=to-this-discussion flavor of Christianity known as “Gnosticism.” Sorry ’bout that.)


          Gnostic theist: “I know that my redeemer liveth.”

          Agnostic theist: Thinks there is likely at least one god, but isn’t sure; generally fond of Pascal’s Wager.

          Agnostic atheist: Doesn’t see any reason to believe in any gods, but isn’t certain about the matter. Most atheists fit this definition.

          Gnostic atheist: Knows there aren’t any gods. Most who fit this label are better described by the uncommon term, “igtheism,” the proposition that all heretofore proposed definitions of the word, “god,” are either incoherent or inherently self-contradictory. Or, gods are imaginary friends that live north of the North Pole, and the best way to meet them is by catching the train at platform 4 3/4.



          1. Ben;

            Interesting observation on terminology on “teh innertubes” but hardly compelling, and defective if true.

            IMHO, it is clearer to say that an “agnostic atheist” is just a doubter. Of course, they can call themselves whatever they want, but I have that privilege too. I am a doubter.

            Certainly, if ending or lessening of human suffering were the totality of some posited God’s purpose, your argument would be compelling. The problem is that in most modern religions, that goal is balanced against other goals. That’s why you correctly wrote that ending/lessening human suffering is only “an essential part of every god worshipped today”. There are other essential parts too. So no argument based on human suffering conclusively eliminates such gods. I don’t defend those religious beliefs, but I recognize their existence and that they are not so easily “disproved”.

            Re: “gods fall firmly into the category of things whose nonexistence is … easy to demonstrate”. Like anything that can be disproved, the disproof is dependent on the propositions assumed which underlie the proof. Most persons of the Abrahamic and Hindu Traditions regard their gods as having attributes that put them beyond the reach of logic.

            1. Thing is, sean, the gods are supposed to have all sorts of power. Indeed, the popular ones are supposed to be all-powerful.

              And yet they, for example, can’t make a simple phone call to warn heads of state of an impending tsunami, or call 911 when one of their supplicants prays to them for protection from the assailant who’s currently doing nasty things to them.

              That demonstrates that these gods are less powerful than a young child with a cell phone, or that they’re not aware of what’s going on “down here,” or they just don’t give a flying fuck…

              …or that they’re simply figments of the imagination, just like any other character from any other faery tale.



              1. Ben,

                They can’t make a phone call? As in are unable to? That’s not proved at all. They don’t make these phone calls, that seems more likely, but not doing something and being unable to do something are very different things.

                Maybe they don’t care, but that does not mean they don’t exist. Maybe they have some other purpose. There is no satisfying answer to that puzzle, but that puzzle goes to the nature of gods, not their existence.

                Which brings up a new item: what do we call a person who believes gods are unworthy of worship even if they do exist?

              2. sean, if Jesus sees a woman in an alley getting raped and he not only doesn’t save her with a miracle, he doesn’t even bother call 911, then he’s a heartless bastard and even more inhuman than the least of his believers.

                Really, this is no different from what Epicurus riddled a half a millennium before the invention of Christianity. The actual quote is lost to history, and it was certainly the generic plural “gods” rather than the eponymous deity of modern theology, but this is the basic idea:

                Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
                Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
                Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
                Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

                I’m just pointing out that it takes so damned little to combat evil, that the gods are trivially demonstrated either less powerful, less compassionate, or less existent than your run-of-the-mill fifth grader with a cell phone. No need to get into all the super miracle powers of the gods; they don’t even do as much as the least of us.


        2. sean samis,

          Negatives claims are not “hard to prove” they are impossible to prove.

          You posit the existence of someone with NO opinion about gods. Those persons don’t exist. They can not exist.

          Once the idea is presented to you it is impossible to have NO opinion about (for example) the existence of invisible ice crystal fairies that dance on the surface of the Sun. One might think such things exist. Most of us would dismiss the idea because there is no plausible way for such things to exist. But NOBODY can prove that they don’t. And anyone presented with this idea would have SOME opinion about it.

          As to whether “atheist” and “agnostic” are the same, well yes and no. They are the same in that both terms refer to the lack of belief in deities. “Agnostic” refers to lack of evidence. (I can’t prove the negative). “Atheist” refers to the lack of belief in the deities. For practical purposes the words are different only in the “spin” that is put on them by the idea that one is more extreme than the other. Go check the WEIT pages about Robert Ingersoll. Back in the 19th century he talked about how these two words relate to one another.

          Again… this is not about your (or my) right to call ourselves this or that. I may call myself an orange peel. You may refuse to call yourself an English speaker. We have that right. But that doesn’t make me an orange peel and doesn’t mean you are less of an English speaker.

          1. Negatives claims are not “hard to prove” they are impossible to prove.

            As the saying goes, “Can you prove that?”

            I really wish this false idea of the impossibility of proving a negative would go away and die a horrible death.

            Nonexistence proofs are amongst the oldest and most famous in all of logic, and they’re often trivial.

            For example, we know that there’s no such thing as “the largest prime number.” Doesn’t exist.

            You can also prove that there isn’t an angry herd of hippopotamuses stampeding all around you as you read these words.

            It is for very similar reasons that we can (and should) know, for an unquestionable fact, that there are no powerful beings that wish to see an end to (or at least a lessening of) human suffering. That’s an essential part of every god worshipped today; thus, none of them exist. And Epicurus proved this point half a millennium before the invention of Christianity!

            So, please. Unless you think it’s reasonable to remain open to the possibility that Santa is the elf who lives north of the North Pole and who is responsible for all presents at Christmas, don’t hold the door open for other entities equally trivially demonstrable incoherently imaginary because you think you “can’t prove a negative.”



              1. My point isn’t that it’s impossible to come up with examples things whose existence it’s impossible to disprove.

                My point is that you can prove many negatives, that there’re scads of things you can prove don’t exist, and that we prove negatives all the time. The luminiferous aether, for another famous example, also doesn’t exist.

                And my ultimate point is that gods fall firmly into the category of things whose nonexistence is as easy to demonstrate as angry hippos in your midst.

                If something must have contradictory or incoherent properties (such as being north of the North Pole or being able to do anything), or if its existence must leave evidence yet said evidence is missing (such as the angry hippos or the continued existence of evil), then we know that said something simply doesn’t exist.

                Might there still be something that vaguely resembles the original proposal that actually does exist, such as a videotape of an hippo stampede laying on your desk or meddlesome aliens in flying saucers? Sure, of course — but what’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?

                (On the subject of Chinese teas, I’m particularly fond of at least one tea from Sichuan province.)



              2. Just to get some basics clarified… I agree that the “god” ideas are incoherent. And I’m as staunch an atheist as anyone here. But the problem is that many (most?) of the muddled god-notions fall closer to the invisible ice fairies than they do to the angry hippos. So as ridiculously implausible and laughable as the ideas may be, I can’t claim to disprove all of the absurd god notions. And I feel no need to waste time trying to do so. On this subject I’m with Richard Dawkins… way over on the extreme of non-belief and finding no reason to take seriously the possibility, but incapable of proving that the invisible ice fairies don’t exist.

              3. I think you’ll find that, amidst several metric fucktons of bafflegab not all that much less nebulous than those faeries of your, you’ll find that each and every actual god hypothesis every believer actually proposes includes enough essential properties that are either incoherent or demonstrably nonexistent to dismiss the claim.

                That’s trebly so with the popular gods.

                The closest any theist ever gets to proposing something as a god that actually exists is an idol. In such cases, either the idol actually exists but is decidedly mundane (“Money is his god.”) or is said to possess magical properties that are either themselves mundane or imaginary (such as faith healers who either are competent physicians or frauds).

                One special case of idol is that of what Sagan termed the Cosmos; that idol is a favorite of pantheists, who, as usual, like to say that their own favorite idol is more special than anybody else’s.

                …or perhaps you can offer an example of a god that somebody actually claims to believe in that you don’t think can be demonstrated non-existent? Not some faery tale you yourself make up on the spot right now, of course, but an actual god actually worshipped (or feared or whatever) by actual humans.


              4. Dude, I don’t disagree about dismissing the claims. I do it all the time.

                And I don’t see that there is any better example than my invisible fairies. Yes. I made them up. Just like the religious have made up all of the other ones. Mine is no more ridiculous than the rest. I know my fairies aren’t real but you can’t prove they aren’t. Hell, I can’t prove they aren’t. Maybe they are. It’s a miracle!

                I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t need to disprove the endless varieties of superstitious demons.

          2. gbjames,

            You wrote that “Negatives claims are not “hard to prove” they are impossible to prove.” That doesn’t matter. Logic still gives them no pass. Propositions that cannot be proved or disproved are inconclusive.

            You are right and wrong that persons without any opinion about gods don’t exist. You are wrong because for the purposes of this controversy the only opinion about gods that matters is an opinion about the existence of gods. The rest is irrelevant. I have no opinion regarding the existence of gods, and if Ben Goren is correct, most self-described atheists don’t either.

            You argue that “atheist” and “agnostic” are basically the same, I continue to object because this is a bad practice. Since applying the term “atheist” to everyone who is not a theist blurs many important distinctions, it is undesirable and misleading to do so. “Non-theist” would be better. I am a non-theist; I am a doubter.

            1. I have no opinion regarding the existence of gods

              I’m not interested in arguing this much but frankly, I don’t really believe that. You have enough of an opinion on the question to spend time here discussing the subject which means you have some amount of skin in the game. Either you believe in them or you don’t. Either way, that’s an opinion. Maybe not a very well supported or reasoned opinion, but it is not nothing.

              There are lots of ways to describe the variety of emphases from one non-believer to another. I’m not claiming that everyone is the same, but on this particular scale you is or you ain’t. The “a” in “atheist” means “not” or “without”. Like moral/amoral, biotic/abiotic, centric/acentric, etc. It is a common form of meaning “not” in English. The dictionary is full of such words.

              1. gbjames

                Clearly you remember I used a phrase about having “skin in the game” but clearly you don’t remember what I was talking about when I did. Considering how many comments there are on this thread, I had to go back and check myself! The exact quote was,

                Mind you, I don’t object to the actual belief that there are no gods. I don’t share it, but it’s no skin off my nose. I only object to efforts to affix a label on me that I think is inappropriate.

                (Posted January 11, 2013 at 8:20 am)

                The only things on this thread I am interested in are resisting people who insist I am something I am not; resisting poor logic along that way, and hoping someone might explain the urgency of moving from doubter to atheist. I think I’m doing OK on the first two, I got bupkis for the third one.

                As for the existence of gods, I have no opinion. You and others have the right to believe what you want, it’s no skin off my nose. I think I’ve been clear and consistent on that point.

              2. sean samis… The “urgency” (your word, not mine) has to do with eliminating the casual disrespect that is endemic against atheists (aka non-believers). That is the point of this posing. It matters because atheists are treated as second class citizens in many regards. So it matters when nonbelievers casually disrespect other nonbelievers just as it matters when a closeted gay person makes a homophobic comment.

                Is that clear enough?

                oh… “skin of nose” and “skin in game” are very different idioms. I hadn’t recalled your use of the former when using the “game” one.

              3. gbjames,

                Your last comment is clear enough, but off-mark. If I acknowledge I am a non-theist, but say I am a doubter, then I am not analogous to a “closeted gay person”; they are concealing their orientation, I am not concealing my belief (or lack there-of). I have also not made any comment analogous to a “homophobic comment”; my disagreement about whether I am a doubter or atheist is not analogous to that.

                I am not an atheist. If atheists are disrespected in society, then the only urgency I am under is to oppose such disrespect; of atheists and theists alike. There is no urgency for me to, in solidarity, adopt the label “atheist” when I think it is not who I am. Muslims are disrespected in our society, should I, in solidarity with them, falsely adopt the label “Muslim”? at the same time I falsely adopt the label “atheist”? That does not seem reasonable or helpful.

                So, yes, I should oppose any disrespect of Atheists. And Muslims. But that duty does not, and cannot extend to pretending to be one, or both.

              4. Most of that was specious. Nobody is claiming you should identify as something you are not. What is being disputed is the meaning of “a” in front of “theist” and why some people like to pretend that it means something other than “not”.

              5. gbjames;

                If “Nobody is claiming [I] should identify as something [I am] not” then your comparison of me to a “closeted gay person” is specious because it implies I am deceiving people about my actual beliefs; which I am not. We are merely disputing the meaning of a word; disagreeing with you is not “pretending”.

                I accept that your use of the words might be “standard” here, but I also assert that it’s a misuse of the language and blurs meaningful distinctions for no good reason; so I exercise my right to dissent persistently. If you insist that in all honesty I am obligated to conform, then you areclaiming [I] should identify as something [I am] not”.

              6. You aren’t obligated to do anything. But neither are the rest of us obligated to respect tortured English usage.

    2. You should recognise that dictionaries are not prescriptive but descriptive; they reflect actual idiomatic usage, even when the meaning has been degraded (see, eg, refute, whose meaning changed post Watergate).

      The first definition of atheism you use above reflects what’s sometimes called strong atheism. The simple absence of belief (there might be gods or not, but in any case I don’t believe in any god) is known as weak atheism in contrast. Hereabouts, we generally take “atheism” in the broader, more inclusive, weak sense. With this definition, anyone who is not a theist is necessarily an atheist. (Hmm… with the possible exception of deists and pan[en]theists.)

      Is that clearer?


      PS. You might find the articles listed here helpful.

      1. Ant,

        I understand your explanation, and it is possible that you are part of a community that blurs the distinction between having no belief about gods and believing there are no gods, but that does not seem to be our culture’s “actual idiomatic usage” as testified to by dictionary definitions. I also believe the distinction is meaningful so I work to preserve it. Given the lack of evidence regarding the existence of gods, having no belief is sanctioned by reason and logic; a belief that there is no god is not sanctioned by reason or logic. The distinction may be subtle, but it is real.

        And, of course, if your definitions are correct but language is changeable, then I think the term “weak atheism” should be abandoned. I am no atheist, I am a doubter.

        1. Oh, I don’t think we blur that distinction, it’s just that we recognise both as different shades of atheism. Strong atheism (a “belief” that there is no god) is a subset of weak atheism (having no belief). Admittedly, it’d be far clearer if there were a distinct word for weak atheism, but unfortunately, we don’t have one. “Agnostic” is sometimes brought onto the field as a pinch-hitter, but as others have pointed out, it properly refers to knowledge about god(s) rather than belief. (Huxley, the seminal agnostic, admitted it that others were justified in calling him an atheist!)

          Many print dictionaries lag current usage of course; you didn’t indicate your sources above.

          Wiktionary gives:

          1. (narrowly) Belief that no deities exist (sometimes including rejection of other religious beliefs).
          2. (broadly) Rejection of belief that any deities exist (with or without a belief that no deities exist).

          3. (very broadly) Absence of belief that any deities exist (including absence of the concept of deities).
          4. (loosely, rare) Absence of belief in a particular deity, pantheon, or religious doctrine (notwithstanding belief in other deities).

          … together with the usage notes:

          The term atheism may refer either to:
          • (rejection of belief): an explicit rejection of belief, with or without a denial that any deities exist (explicit atheism),
          • (absence of belief): an absence of belief in the existence of any deities (weak atheism or soft atheism),
          • (affirmative belief): an explicit belief that no gods exist (strong atheism or hard atheism).

          I came across this exercise recently (here?): Takes a blank sheet of paper. Write down the names of all of the gods that you believe exist. If the sheet remains blank, you are an atheist (in the “absence of belief” sense).

          As a doubter, could you write anything on that sheet?

          Given the lack of evidence regarding the existence of gods, having no belief is sanctioned by reason and logic; a belief that there is no god is not sanctioned by reason or logic.

          I think there’s an equivocation error here; is “belief” really equivalent in both cases?

          Given our current state of knowledge, it is admittedly not rational to conclude with absolute certainty that god does not exist.

          But, based on not just the lack of evidence regarding the existence of gods, but particularly a lack of the kind of evidence that we would expect if there were a god (as conceived by the vast majority of theistic religions; that is, “predictions”, such as that prayer works, for certain values of god), as well as the observation that the world can be explained by well-supported naturalistic explanations (theories) or, if not, that god provides no better an explanation than any valid naturalistic hypotheses (which are far simpler and tend to have far greater explanatory power), it is entirely rational (literally, proportional to the evidence) to conclude that the likelihood of god is vanishingly small.


          1. Arrgh! I didn’t close my blockquotes properly. I hope you can make sense of this.

            Also, I meant to strike this para. “Many print dictionaries lag current usage of course; you didn’t indicate your sources above.” You were using an online dictionary and did provide links; I’d careless overlooked them the first time through. Sorry.


          2. Ant,

            Regarding: “it’d be far clearer if there were a distinct word for weak atheism, but unfortunately, we don’t have one.” Actually, we do.

            I call myself a doubter, that is a distinct term to use in place of “weak atheist”. Non-theist would also work more generally. We have these better alternative words; we just need to start using them.

            Regarding the exercise you mentioned, this is just a variation on the discussion of what to call someone who has no beliefs about the existence of gods. It adds nothing.

            Regarding: “… is “belief” really equivalent in both cases?” Yes. Any belief is a state of mind in which it is inclined to assent to the truth of the related proposition. For examples, IMHO:

            • Atheists have a state of mind in which they are inclined to assent to the truth of the proposition “there are no gods”.

            • Theists have a state of mind in which they are inclined to assent to the truth of the proposition “there are some gods”.

            I have neither state of mind; I assent to the truth of neither proposition. Hence I am neither atheist nor theist.

            Regarding: “the likelihood of god is vanishingly small”; however “vanishingly small” is the likelihood of a god, it only takes one.

            Regarding your editorial difficulties, I have them all the time. I don’t even know how to use blockquotes (and I over-use italics and bold).

            1. Thanks for your understanding!

              But there is the same problem with “non-theist”; atheists (using the term now only in the strong sense that you favour) are also non-theists, so what do you call a non-theist who is not an atheist? A non-atheist non-theist? A weak non-theist?

              Re “belief”; yes it has that sense, but theists have belief in the sense of “a religious conviction” (as well). When you said, “having no belief is sanctioned by reason” I understood “belief” in this sense primarily. My error if that’s not what you meant; but it is at least open to ambiguity.

              I’m not quite sure what you mean by “however ‘vanishingly small’ is the likelihood of a god, it only takes one.” The likelihood is vanishingly small whether you’re postulating one or ten or a million. The weight of evidence, logic and reason is agin it.



              1. Ant,

                It’s no problem at all. Non-theist includes all beliefs other than theism. Some non-theists would be doubters like me. Some non-theists believe there is no god, they are just called atheists.

                Non-theist is a general classification like mammal. Some mammals are cats, the remainder are not called mammal-non-cats, they all have their own labels (dog, horse, pig, etc.)

                Let me be clear: “vanishingly small likelihood” does not mean “disproved”; it does not foreclose the possibility of a god. Gods remain possible.

              2. Non-theist includes all beliefs other than theism. Some non-theists would be doubters like me. Some non-theists believe there is no god, they are just called atheists.

                So, what term would you have us use for what I’ve been calling “weak atheists”? For non-theists who are neither doubters nor (strong) atheists?

                Let me be clear: “vanishingly small likelihood” does not mean “disproved”; it does not foreclose the possibility of a god. Gods remain possible.

                Are you expecting me to disagree with that statement?

                Nothing in science is proved.

                Yes, gods remain possible only very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very unlikely.

                So unlikely that it is rational to make a conclusion (provisionally, as with every conclusion in science) – to “be inclined to assent to the truth of the proposition”, if you will – that there are no gods. (Cf. Feynman on flying saucers: “I mean that from my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence than of the unknown rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence.”)


              3. Ant,

                Let “non-theists who are neither doubters nor (strong) atheists” come up with their own label, if they feel a need. I don’t see the urgent need for me to supply one. I am a doubter.

                Regarding: “Yes, gods remain possible only very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very unlikely.

                Why nine “very”s instead of eight or ten? (wink!)

                Clearly you are convinced there is no god. That is your privilege, but as you say, it’s not proved, it’s just your provisional conclusion. Others are convinced there is a god. That is their privilege, similarly. You are sure they are wrong. They are sure you are wrong.

                Me, I am not convinced by either position, and I see no urgency in adopting your position.

              4. But, you see the need for such a term?

                Father Ted.

                But my conviction is epistemologically justified. Theirs is not; it is just a matter of faith (pretending to know things you don’t). 😉


              5. Ant,

                Regarding: “But, you see the need for such a term?” Doesn’t matter to me; if they want such a term, let them come up with something appropriate.

                But my conviction is epistemologically justified.” Perhaps, imperfectly. But either way, that does not matter unless you privilege epistemological justifications (which is not required).

                I’m not saying you’re wrong, only that even the smallest step beyond conclusive evidence is speculative.

              6. Well, clearly you are no taxonomist.

                I privilege epistemologies based on empiricism, because that is the only approach which has consistently generated reliable models of reality.

                Not everything is equally speculative.

                Are you a doubter about the tooth fairy and the Easter Bilby as well?


  25. >I am unable to believe that there are gods and I am unable to believe there are no gods.

    This is the part that always confuses me. What is a god? Let’s say we’re talking about a hyper-dimensional space alien that is head and shoulders above us in a cognitive and/or moral sense. Why call it a god?

    Gods in every possible way I have been able to examine them are made up by humans.

    So, I sincerely don’t know what you mean by “I am unable to believe there are no gods.”

    By what definition would you call something a god? And then why call it a god? Why not just describe it with specific attributes?

    For instance, why not say, “I am unable to believe there is not a hyper-dimensional high school student who created our universe and watched in fascination as it unfolded.” or “… who then buggered off and got drunk with her friends as it unfolded”?

    I don’t find the word “god” useful in the least as it can mean practically anything.

    What specifically is it that you are unable to believe there isn’t?

    1. Susan;

      God’s are supernatural beings who are the creators of our reality. That would include God in the Abrahamic Tradition as well as the Hindu. I am sure there are other religious or cultural traditions that differ in their understanding of what a god is; those would need to be addressed individually. Your “hyper-dimensional space alien…” doesn’t sound like a god, but I am open to the possibility.

      You wrote that “Gods in every possible way I have been able to examine them are made up by humans.” I accept this as true, but do you claim to have examined “Gods in every possible way. Period?” No, since that is simply beyond human capacity.

      By the way, if you don’t know what “god” means, how were you able to examine them at all?

      1. God’s are supernatural beings who are the creators of our reality.

        Then they are as logically incoherent as Santa’s workshop north of the North Pole.

        For their reality is surely part of our reality, and thus they would have had to create their reality as well as our own. But without their reality, they didn’t exist in order to create it. If their reality existed, then they created nothing but merely rearranged what already was — and we’re then still left with the question of where they themselves came from.

        This sort of reasoning obviously isn’t beyond human capacity. Indeed, it’s no different from how we know that there’s no such thing as “the largest prime number,” as well. Substitute “prime cause” for “prime number,” and the logic works out almost exactly the same.



        1. Ben,

          The classic response is that you have this backwards: Our reality is merely a small part of theirs; our reality was created by them within their reality.

          I’m not defending this as correct, but as sufficiently different from your assumption as to make your logic fail.

          1. No, I addressed that as well.

            If their reality existed, then they created nothing but merely rearranged what already was — and we’re then still left with the question of where they themselves came from.

            If gods are required to explain our reality, then super-gods are required to explain the reality of the gods. If no super-gods are required to explain their reality, then no gods are required to explain our reality.

            Anything else is special pleading and deserves naught but dismissal.


            1. Sorry, Ben. I obviously missed that. Belief in gods is rife with special pleading, so that should not be a surprise.

              However, if we require everything to have a cause then reality itself cannot exist; what created it? What created whatever existed before the Big Bang? What created that? and that? and that?

              For any reality to exist, there must be SOMETHING that simply has always existed, some thing uncreated. If that is so – and it does seem logically necessary – then identifying that as one’s god is not extraordinary.

              1. I think you’re close to, but missing, the point.


                a) not everything requires a cause, in which case gods cannot be proposed on the necessity of us needing a cause; or

                II) everything requires a cause, including the super-gods that created the gods, and the super-duper gods that created the super-gods, and so on.

                However, there is an uncaused infinite regression in II), thereby demonstrating by contradiction that, even if you start with the premise that everything must have a cause, it is not the case that everything actually has a cause.

                That brings us right back to a), meaning that the mere existence of existence is insufficient reason to propose the existence of gods.

                Of course, you’re still welcome to do so, but you’re also welcome to think that it’s Santa responsible for the presents and / or coal in your stockings. Doesn’t mean your insistence aligns with reality.



              2. Ben,

                We agree on most things in this comment, but I think few theists propose the existence of gods to explain existence in general. Those that do can be responded to as you have done. I think most theists believe in their god for other reasons. Our agreement on that is not critical.

      2. I am days late on this and I apologize. The thread has grown stale but I didn’t notice until now that you’d responded.

        >God’s are supernatural beings who are the creators of our reality.

        What does supernatural mean? How do we know the extent of nature and the point at which supernature can be invoked? In what way did they create our reality?

        >Your “hyper-dimensional space alien…” doesn’t sound like a god,

        I don’t think so either. But why not? It could be something beyond our universe that created our universe. Would that make it supernatural? Or just nature extended beyond what our most qualified people so far understand? If it showed up with evidence, it would fit the criteria much more snugly than Yahweh or Shiva. I still don’t know why I would call it a “god”. Gods are firmly entrenched in human assertions and run the gamut from Zeus to Manitou to hungry volcano gods to Yahweh etc. ad nauseum.

        >I accept this as true, but do you claim to have examined “Gods in every possible way. Period?”

        How could I? The definitions are so vague or so incoherent as to render it impossible.

        >No, since that is simply beyond human capacity.

        Why? Why is it beyond human capacity to scrutinize the claims of other humans? So far, every reference to a god or gods isn’t that special. They are human claims that appear to be the products of our brains without any external validation. Our incapacity to investigate those claims is just another claim made by humans. Feel free to illuminate that for me.

        >By the way, if you don’t know what “god” means, how were you able to examine them at all?

        I don’t know what YOU mean by “god”. I’m afraid I’m no further along. Every god claim that I’ve been able to put my finger on is either completely incoherent, unsupported by evidence or runs counter to the evidence.

        In every case, I have to ask what the person referring to “god” means by “god”.

        Your indifference to leprechauns and fairies is interesting as I think it’s very important to know if they’re real or not. If there are tiny people who can disappear and reappear at will and find pots of gold at the ends of rainbows, it would turn our assumptions about reality upside-down. These are supernatural beings (given what we know about rainbows).

        Your doubt should extend in all directions on any “supernatural” claims. Which particular god is more important to you than leprechauns and why call it a “god”?

  26. “Just because they take some stands that people find offensive, they’re immediately written off in toto.”

    I know what you mean. I’m sick of people dismissing individuals like William Lane Craig simply because they talk utter nonsense.

  27. I have heard, and spoken with Kyrsten Sinema
    on a number of occasions, and know members of her family.

    One is not likely to find any one more driven, more talented, more compassionate and more accomplished, anywhere on the hill.

    An atheist running for office must win the support of believers and non-believers alike.

    But even with their good wishes,it’s harder to garner financial support from
    constituents who don’t think the candidate can win.

    For an open atheist to win office, like other demographic minorities in our history,initially,running for office must not be so much about winning, but about doing the right thing, win or not.

  28. “Popular wisdom” tells us that Eskimo’s have 52 words for snow (and more for ice); some people have foolishly used this as an example of bad language; language unnecessarily arcane. But it is not true on several levels. First, Inuit is the better word, in place of “Eskimo” which is perceived as racist and insulting. Next, and ignoring the specific number of words cited (52?), the more important point is that the Inuit live (lived?) the greater part of their life on snow and ice. They had to be acutely aware of snow or ice that was dangerous to travel on, or which indicated the possibility of good access to fishing below, or otherwise important to their survival. We lower-48 Americans take a more lackadaisical attitude toward snow and ice because we can. Skiers may be an exception to that. Inuit language takes a technical approach to snow and ice because they need it to.

    When we are talking about the meaning of atheism, theism, agnosticism, etc. on this site, are we taking a lackadaisical approach, or are we trying to be “technical” to some extent? Given all the discussion about word meaning, it seems a more technical discussion, where nuance and fine points matter.

    That’s why I push back between a binary terminology in which those who believe in god(s) are called theists; and everybody else are called atheists. This is a lackadaisical, if not sloppy approach to the language; especially since it imposes a binary category on something that is not binary: some believe in some god(s), some believe in no gods, and yet others don’t believe one way or the other. Lumping the last two together is no more rational than lumping the first two together; i.e. the terms strong theist, weak theist, and atheist are just as good a lumping of beliefs – and just as bad – as the lumping theist, weak atheist, and strong atheist. Both lumpings obscure an important distinction: between those who believe in gods and those who disbelieve in gods is a third group: those others who have no belief either way. The terms theist, doubter, and atheist make a better, clearer distinction than either of the lumpings.

    Some defend their lumping because atheists are a minority in America, and they do experience some invidious discrimination. Lumping doubters with atheists gives the appearance of there being more atheists, and possibly alleviating some of the invidious discrimination. Although that goal is understandable, the means is not. To alleviate oppression of atheists, those who might not want to be lumped in with them are told they must be or should be or already are. This is an oppression in and of itself. Perhaps it is a minor oppression, and if there were some good reason it might even be acceptable, but if the goal is merely to inflate the atheist demographic, then that’s not a good reason.

    I entered this thread seeking to know why I (or others) who are not atheists should “join up”. What is the urgency? So far all I’ve heard are arguments based on lackadaisical semantics and this goal of inflating the atheist demographic; neither of which seems reasonable to me.

    1. We’ve understood your point of view for some time. Several of us have tried to explain our point of view to you, apparently without success. How much longer do you want to thrash that now-dead horse?

    2. The thing is, sean, you already self-identified as a non-theist earlier on this page. For Stedman and others here, that term is synonymous with “atheist” and “nonbeliever”. Neither is this a modern degradation of the term; “atheist” has been used in this most-inclusive sense since at least the eighteenth century (d’Holbach; was he sloppy and lackadaisical?). You may disagree, but it is you who are in the minority.

      Yes, there are nuances that this binary distinction doesn’t reflect, but there are these great words in the English language called “adjectives” that qualify nouns. Thus we have “strong” and “weak” atheists; “agnostic”, “ignostic”, “apnostic”, and “apathetic” atheists; &c. (Just like, to use another biological example, we have tawny, barn, little, snowy and other owls.)


      1. Ant;

        Being a believer in the scientific method (or process) I don’t confer upon d’Holbach’s opinions or practices any evidential value. He was a mere human and imperfect; as we all are. Being as he’s been dead about 230 years, I also cannot ask the Baron what he thinks about this question now. So forgive me, please if I don’t care to debate his definitions. I am perfectly comfortable saying he might have been lackadaisical or even sloppy.

        And being in the minority has no evidential value, as you well know.

        Using adjectives to salvage a bad categorization is suboptimal, and your example from biology assumes that all non-theists are atheists (referring to multiple terms for owls only). This, of course means your argument is circular. “Tawny owl” might be a good term for a kind of owl, but not a good term for a kind of cat. Is it better to call a dog a “little horse” or just call it a dog? I’m sticking with “dog”.

        1. I’m not quite sure why you’re bleating on about “evidential value”. We’re discussing language, not science. The meanings of words are very much ad populum; you might claim a specific definition in a particular context, but that doesn’t stop it being widely understood to mean something different in popular usage (eg “quantum leap”).

          You’re taking the analogy (not an argument!) too literally! If you deprecate adjectives so much, that rules out “non-theist” too! And if you’re seriously agin the use of suboptimal language, I look forward to your reply in lojban.


          1. Ant;

            If d’Holbach’s opinions have no evidential value, then your insertion of him into this discussion was pointless; why else would you mention him other than your belief that his opinion have some evidential value? Why else would anyone care what a guy long-dead thought? You’re the one who brought him up, so I’ll leave that for you to explain. But generally, only lawyers and the religious grant any person’s opinions evidential value.

            If scientific principles don’t apply to language, why do so many on this site think it applies to religion? Strange to exempt language…

            If language is very much ad populum, then I get to participate in that process; but you (and others) seem to object to that; I think it’s because you don’t like the results.

            I don’t depreciate adjectives too much, just when they are used as patches to cover-over something that should be fixed.

            From you’re last paragraph, I infer from it that you think I should not take your words seriously. Really?

            1. We can certainly study language scientifically; my point was that language doesn’t behave like a science.

              I mentioned d’Holbach specifically to show that the broader meaning of “atheism” is not a degraded one.

              Well, of course you get to participate in the process of language development, but continuing to insist that “atheism” means only what you want it to mean and riding roughshod over the fact that the broader sense is well established and more widely used is a voice crying in the wilderness.

              At this point, insistence on the narrow sense is actually contributing to the negative attitudes towards those who already openly self-identify* as atheists but who do so with the broader sense in mind, as it paints them into an epistemological corner in which they don’t belong. In arguments, theists will often deliberately insist on the narrow sense to wrongfoot their opponents and make them look inconsistent or foolish (just like all the claims that “Dawkins is an agnostic not an atheist” that circulated after a recent debate).

              * or deters folks from being open about it.

              Hmm… adjectives as Spackle. Do you have any objections to special and general relativity? Should Einstein have coined distinct new words for each? 😉


              Really? Well, I certainly did not intend to imply that. (I have no control over what you infer.) But the fact is, English is a suboptimal language. lojban was expressly constructed to enhance precision and avoid ambiguity, which, inter alia, seem to be you motivations here.


              1. Ant;

                True; language does not behave like science. But your comment about d’Holbach was not an example of how language behaves, it was an argument for a proposition; all such arguments are validly considered by the methods of science.

                I understand that “the broader meaning of ‘atheism’ is not degraded” generally; my reply is that it should be.

                Riding roughshod”? That sounds like an invocation of the “you’re being too strident!” argument. When did it become a vice to persist in advocating for what you believe is right? Especially when the case against you is “but that’s just how we roll here.” What about the roughshod efforts of others on this site to tell me what I MUST agree to? Is not turnabout still fair play?

                If saying I am a doubter and not an atheist is all it takes to “deter” someone from being open about their beliefs (or lack thereof), then they were looking for a reason to not be open in the first place. I have never said a bad word about atheism, nor anyone who says they are atheist. I have debated the meaning of the word, but not impugned the virtues of atheists.

                Further, if all it takes to “wrongfoot” non-theists is to challenge what they think “atheist” means, then these non-theists (however they self-identify) have left themselves open to this challenge. D’Holbach’s broader meaning is what makes them vulnerable, not I. In some sense, the fact that you are aware and concerned about this problem argues that I am in the right. No one will “wrongfoot” someone on this matter if they adopt my meaning. Problem solved!

                “Should Einstein have coined distinct new words for to special and general relativity?” No, they are different members of the same set; they are like “tawny owls” and “barn owls”. They are not like atheist and theist and doubter.

                (¿“you’re”?)” Good catch. I need an editor. On the grand scale of the interwebs tho’, that’s not too bad. But it was a grammatical error. Mea Culpa.

                To finish: English is a terribly suboptimal language, but that’s no excuse to contribute to the problem. I am interested in enhancing precision and avoiding ambiguity. Those are defensible goals, I think. And if it protects one from being wrongfooted, so much the better.

              2. Hi, sean — 

                I’ll keep it short, as it’s clear that (a) we’ve reached the limit of nested comments, (b) that you will not be dissuaded, and (c) we are in danger of breaking our host’s roolz.

                I’m not sure what I said that prompted you to make your position clear, but I didn’t mean to impugn you by suggesting that you had ever said a bad word about atheists.

                “riding roughshod [over]” might have been ill-considered; does “flying in the face of” sound less like tone-trolling?

                I don’t disagree with you that things would be far clearer if “atheist” had only the narrower sense. But that is not the case and no-one can make it so by fiat. The reality is that for the vast majority of openly self-identified atheists, “atheist” is an exact synonym of “non-theist” and your protestations (however well intended) won’t change that.



                PS. I’ll put you down as a doubting atheist, OK? 😀

              3. Ant;

                This will be my last also on this thread; it’s been intriguing. We cannot fix the language by fiat, but we can fix it by advocating for change. It’s been done before. Change comes slowly and requires persistence.

                I can’t control how you refer to me, but I remain a doubter”. Isn’t it generally considered disrespectful to ignore a person’s clearly articulated self-identification? I won’t tell you what you are, please show me the same courtesy.

                Take Care; and best regards.

  29. some believe in some god(s), some believe in no gods, and yet others don’t believe one way or the other.

    You’re obviously a member of the third group, which makes one wonder why you won’t answer the question of whether you have similar lack of belief one way or another about such things as elves and fairies. You said something like, it’s not important because a large segment of the population doesn’t believe in elves and fairies, but, of course, that’s completely irrelevant. If you are what you call a doubter on the existence of gods, logically you should be a doubter on the existence of a great many things, including elves and fairies. Why aren’t you?

    1. tomh;

      Actually, I answered that question a little differently. Search this thread for the word “leprechaun”.

      I don’t dwell on fairies and elves much because they seem unimportant; God seems much more important. That perception of importance (or its lack) is entirely relevant to how much energy I put into considering the question. Fairies and elves, I’m neither atheist about nor actually undecided; I really just don’t care. If they show up, great. If they never do, meh. God seems a larger question, important enough of a question that this blog feels a need to “out” persons whom they think are secret atheists.

      1. I see. So you do actually have the same doubts about the existence of elves, fairies, and so on, that you have about the existence of gods. That is consistent, at least, since there is exactly the same amount of evidence for all of them. It seems an odd way of looking at imaginary beings, but to each his or her own.

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