Is a cat an atheist?

I am an atheist. I’m also an agnostic; I don’t consider the two to be mutually exclusive, because it seems to me that the first is about belief, and the second is about knowledge. I can’t say that I know there are no beings of the kind that we might call gods, but I don’t believe there are.

But what exactly is atheism? I raise the question because, in several of the atheist and humanist blogs I read, the question comes up rather a lot. And it is almost always asserted that atheism is simply the absence of belief in any deities; it is not in itself a belief. In an interesting blog entry I read today, it was asserted that:

Atheism prefixes the Greek a- (without) to theism, and means simply “without belief in at least one god.” It does not mean disbelief or refusal to believe; it is a position of neutrality: absence of belief. To place it in context: a baby is atheist until it is introduced to supernatural concepts at a later age; animals are atheist.

This is a fairly typical position, and I’m not going to flat-out disagree with it, but I think there’s something wrong there somewhere. This may come partly from having a fiancée who’s an epistemologist; if you argue with her about belief and knowledge, you’d better be on firm ground. That said, I’m not showing this to her before I publish it, so maybe I’m sinking deep into epistemological ground as we speak. We’ll see…

Three things trouble me, I think, about the statement I quoted above. I’ll start where my feet feel firmest. As a linguist, I’m irritated by the appeal to etymology; just because a word was derived a particular way doesn’t mean that we can derive its modern meaning this way. Atheism is not forced by virtue of its origins to mean… well … anything in particular. A word means what it is used to mean; there is no inherent link between patterns of sound and particular meanings. In fact, the kind of questions people like to ask about language, like ‘How many phonemes are there in English?’ and ‘What does this word mean?’ are only really answerable with regard to a particular individual speaker or utterance at a particular time—the large-scale entities we call languages are really just statistical clusters of speakers and their utterances. So when we ask what a particular word means in English, all we can really say is, ‘What do most English speakers (or most of the English speakers I consider relevant in some way) use this word to mean?’ Or, perhaps, ‘How can this word be used most effectively?’ which in general, I suppose, implies using it in such a way as to make communication with the relevant people as straightforward as possible.

Now, with this in mind, the distinction between ‘without belief’ and ‘disbelief’ is reasonable; we certainly can distinguish between individuals to whom it has simply never occurred to believe in something and individuals who have thought about whether a particular thing exists and decided they do not believe in it. That’s all very well. But let’s be honest: no one in the first group is going to call themselves an atheist. As many atheists like to point out, baldness is not a hair colour; but a bald person who’s never heard of hair isn’t going to distinguish themselves as bald. This is not to say that it’s wrong to say that newborns and animals are atheists; it’s just that they’re a different kind of atheist from people who’ve been told about religion. The kind of atheists (like me) who write blog entries about atheism are people who believe there is no god. In answer to the question, ‘Do you believe there is a god, or gods?’ there are, broadly, three responses for people who understand what the question means: ‘Yes’; ‘No’; ‘I have no position’. People who answer in the first way are theists; people who answer in the second way are atheists; it seems quite wrong to say that people who answer in the third way are also atheists. And for those who answer no, the distinction between absence of belief and belief of absence seems spurious: if they understand the question and have given it enough thought to answer as they do, then they not only lack belief in god; it is reasonable also to say that they believe there is no god.

But this leads us to a somewhat odd situation, where we have two kinds of atheist: people who understand what the question means and answer no, and people (or other entities) who are simply unaware of the question. Maybe we should just live with this; it’s not actually all that odd: language is often ambiguous. Or maybe we should restrict the term atheist to one or the other. If we do, then it seems to me that it might better be restricted to the first set. This accords best with how people understand the term; it counts people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as atheists. The second set counts cats and, perhaps, rocks and trees as atheists. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the term seems rather less useful applied to them.

And there’s a potential difference between these entities and new-born humans too. I’ve known people take the argument a step further and state that atheism is the default human position. This is far from clear. It is the default rational position, and the null hypothesis; it is the hypothesis that best accords with Occam’s razor (which is not quite the same, incidentally, as the simplest hypothesis in every sense of the word). But that does not mean that human beings are by default atheists in anything but a trivial sense. Indeed, I suspect that evolution has given us biases such that we tend on the whole towards theism. It is, on the whole, rational thought that leads us away from that.

So I am suspicious of claims that new-born babies are atheists. They are not atheists in the same way that I am, except inasmuch as we are all members of a large set of entities that happen to lack a belief in deities. But I’m not convinced that that’s the set it’s most useful to apply the term to.



Filed under Humanism, Religion, Atheism etc.

3 responses to “Is a cat an atheist?

  1. I've set up my Facebook account so that my blog posts appear as notes there. A comment there reads:errrr so you don't BELIEVE in god but you KNOW that there could be something higher….eeeeuhhh (puzzled). Anyway, i think cats are "I-couldn't-care-less-as-long-as i-get-my-food-and-sleep-ists" and we should all follow their example, it would be a much better world.I agree about cats and, actually, I agree about the characterisation of my position. I don't BELIEVE in god, but I KNOW that this belief might be false, and that such beings might exist. Granted, there are a few conceptions of god which could be shown to be logically impossible; but where this is not the case, I don't know that here are no beings that might be called gods. And I KNOW (as far as it is possible to know anything) that this means my belief might be false, that there might be a god. This is why I call myself both an atheist and an agnostic.

  2. Hold on. Regarding your linguistic argument, given that:…it is almost always asserted that atheism is simply the absence of belief in any deities; it is not in itself a belief"and:Atheism… means simply “without belief in at least one god.” …this is a fairly typical positionand then:A word means what it is used to mean… when we ask what a particular word means in English, all we can really say is, ‘What do most English speakers (or most of the English speakers I consider relevant in some way) use this word to mean?’So what's the problem? The appeal to etymology doesn't enter into it.

  3. The bit I quoted says: 'Atheism prefixes the Greek a- (without) to theism, and means simply “without belief in at least one god"'.That implies to me that the writer thinks the word should be used in that way by virtue of its etymology; and I think that's a misleading argument. Moreover, they're quite explicit that the word shouldn't be used to mean a belief that there is no god (at least that's how I interpret "it does not mean disbelief…").This argument that the word atheist should not be used to mean "someone who believes there is no god", but only "someone who lacks a belief in god (or gods)" seems to me to be very common on atheist and humanist blogs. I admit that my "almost always" is based on a poor sample, however.As it happens (and for what it's worth) I suspect this contradicts majority usage in English. I'm not of the opinion, incidentally, that a word should necessarily be used as the majority uses it. Or that the majority usage is in some sense "correct". To be clear: a word means what it's used to mean on a particular occasion. Since, for various obvious reasons, members of a speech community tend to use words in quite similar ways, there are statistical trends over individual speakers and speech events. And, where there is variation, some individuals may promote one usage over another. So when people ask "What does this word mean in English?" you can answer in one of two ways: either you can describe how people in the speech community (or a subset of them) use it (a descriptive answer); or you can say how you, or someone else, think it should be used (a prescriptive answer).Now, I'm not necessarily against promoting one usage over another. But I think we need to be clear to distinguish between description and prescription, and I don't think the writer did that. It seemed to me they were making one of the following claims, all of which I think problematic:1) That the word atheist has one clear meaning set in stone, perhaps by virtue of its etymology [Not true of any word];2) That the word atheist is not used to refer to someone who believes there is no god [This is just inaccurate]3) That the word atheist is used by the majority of people to mean absence of belief, NOT a belief in the absence of god [This may be the case, but if so, it should be put in those terms. Moreover, the second usage is clearly common enough that the word frequently does mean that; to say it doesn't is just inaccurate];4) That the word "atheist" should not be used to refer to someone who believes there is no god. [Fair enough; that's the writer's opinion; but I don't think it's well supported, and I think that if that's what they mean, they should put it in prescriptive, not descriptive, terms].And finally, of course, there's my point that for self-declared atheists who understand the question, the distinction between "absence of belief in god" and "belief in the absence of god"seems spurious in any case.

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