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ATHEISM: the definition question

Theists and atheists can't even agree on how to define atheism.  Theists say atheism is the belief that God doesn't exist.  Atheists say atheism is lack of belief in God.  (Yes, the term, God, is ambiguous, but that issue can be sidestepped for now by defining theism and atheism relative to whatever definition of God is chosen.)

The basic problem is a clumsiness of the English language, which has two terms: theist and atheist, to label persons in several categories which are sometimes complicated in their relationships.  I will try to clarify.

Any rational declarative statement is (ontologically) either true or false.  In epistemological terms, a statement known to be true is called certain; a statement known to be false is called impossible (at least in the particular instance denoted by the statement).  If you don't know if a statement is true or false, three other epistemological categories are added, making a total of five, which can be listed in terms of percentages of probability (or likelihood if you prefer).

  1. 100% likely = certain
  2. less than 100% and more than 50% likely = probable
  3. 50% likely = even probability, or equal chance
  4. less than 50% and more than 0% likely = improbable
  5. 0% likely = impossible

These five are the epistemological categories that exist, despite the fact that language (at least English) labels them poorly.  e.g.

But setting these language difficulties aside as much as possible, if the truth of proposition X is in question, and the meaning of proposition X is clear, then proposition X is one of the following:

  1. certain
  2. probable
  3. a toss up
  4. improbable
  5. impossible

If proposition X is the existence of God, then (regardless of how God is defined) the above categories are conventionally labeled:

  1. theist
  2. theist
  3. agnostic*
  4. atheist
  5. atheist

* Agnostic is another ambiguous term.  A soft agnostic says "I don't know." A hard agnostic says, "It can't be known."  In both cases, the term is often expanded to label 2, 3, & 4, leaving 1 & 5 to persons who claim certainty.

But the above five categories are only applicable to persons who see enough evidence to make a probability judgment.  Sometimes there is no way to judge probabilities.  e.g. If I showed you a black box one meter cubed, and asked you if you think there is a book in it, and you had no other info, then you would have no way to judge the probabilities.  In this case you could and should abstain from making a probability judgment.  So, epistemological abstention is sometimes a legitimate category.

Next question: Does the existence of God have sufficient evidence to judge probability?  This question would necessarily depend on the definition of God, so we must narrow it down in order to go further.  I would contend that for any specific brand of theism (Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, etc.) a person might rightly claim to have seen insufficient evidence to judge probability for the existence of any of their respective Gods/gods.

So if a person claims to have no belief in God (as defined by some earthly religion), I have no objection.  The person may be lying, but I can't prove it.  But if such a person labels his epistemological abstention atheism, then I would ask him to keep it distinct from numbers 4 & 5 above, which have also been conventionally labeled atheism.  If he contends that his definition of atheism is the only correct one, then I would ask him what he calls numbers 4 & 5 above.  If he is making up his own language, then I would accuse him of it.

If a person calls himself an atheist by virtue of epistemological abstention, and admits that numbers 4 & 5 above can also be called atheism, then I have no problem with him, as long as he doesn't equivocate on the term.  But if this person is seen arguing with theists on the probability of the existence of some form of God, then I would assume that he is also a category 4 atheist (possibly even category 5) relative to that form of God, and would ask him to admit that he is one.  Otherwise the atheism he is defining is different from the atheism he is defending.  And the atheist he is claiming to be is different from the atheist he is showing himself to be.