October 08, 2007
Atheist/theist or naturalist/religious?
If one tries to categorize people by their beliefs about god, then there are many categories into which people fall (all definitions in quotes are from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary): the religious believe in the existence of a god who can and does intervene in the events of the universe; the deist is part of "a movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe"; the pantheist "equates God with the forces and laws of the universe"; the agnostic is "one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god"; and the atheist is one "who believes that there is no deity."
Most philosophical discussions about religion (and opinion polls that try to measure the prevalence of religious beliefs) tend to divide people along the theist-nontheist fault line, where a theist is one who believes "in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world" and nontheist consists of everyone else. If you divide people up this way, then the groups that I have labeled as religious, deists, and pantheists all end up on the theist side of the split; atheists fall on the nontheist; and agnostics straddle the divide.
While the theist-nontheist divide can lead to interesting discussions about important philosophical points, as a practical matter it usually goes nowhere, because there is no operational way of distinguishing between the deist, pantheist, agnostic, and atheist points of view.
The problem with the theist-nontheist division is that it depends on self-identification and all kinds of highly variable subjective factors come into play in deciding what label one assigns to oneself or to others. For example, almost all atheists will readily concede that the non-existence of god, like the non-existence of fairies and unicorns, cannot be proven and that therefore there is always the logical possibility that god exists. As a result, some atheists will prefer to describe themselves as agnostics, since the term atheist erroneously, but popularly, connotes the idea that such people know for certain that god does not exist.
Take the case of Charles Darwin. By the time he reached the age of forty, he was to all intents and purposes an atheist. The shift from belief to disbelief had been steady and inexorable. The more he learned about the laws of nature, the less credibility miracles and the doctrines of Christianity had for him. He considered the idea of a personal, benevolent, omnipotent god so illogical that he said it "revolts our understanding." Darwin wrote that he:
"gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as divine revelation." There was no smugness and no hastiness to his loss of faith; it happened almost against his will. "Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete." (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen, p. 245, my italics)
After he lost his faith, he had no doubts or anxiety about it but when pressed to give a label to his religious views he said, "The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain Agnostic." Darwin apparently shied away from the label "atheist" as being too aggressively confident, which went against his own cautious and non-confrontational personality, and he took refuge in the new word agnostic, which had been coined by his friend and colleague T. H. Huxley to meet the philosophical needs of just such people. I think many people who are functionally atheists share Darwin's unease with calling themselves that. When I tell people that I am an atheist, for example, they often try to persuade me that I must "really" be an agnostic since I readily concede that I cannot be sure that there is no god.
Similarly, many people probably choose to call themselves deists or pantheists, not because they have any evidence for the existence of the deity, but because they seem to feel that if there is no god at all then there is no meaning to life. Since they desire their life to have meaning, the idea of there being a god is comforting and appealing to them and they seek to find some way to hold on to it, despite the lack of evidence. Deism and pantheism offers such an option without also having to accept the absurdities that formal religions require, like infallible texts and miracles. It allows one to have a god to give one's life meaning for those who need such an external source, while not compromising one's belief that the world behaves in accordance with natural laws.
I feel that a more operationally useful classification scheme would to sort people according to their answer to the question "Do you think that god in any way intervenes in the course of events contrary to natural laws?" In other words, we should ask what their views are on what people normally consider miracles. Those answering in the affirmative would be classified as religious, and those answering in the negative (atheists, deists, and pantheists) would be grouped under the umbrella term naturalist, with the name being selected because all these people see the world operating solely under the influence of natural laws. Most agnostics, other than those who are doggedly determined to not commit themselves, should also be able to answer this question definitely and decide which of the two groups they feel most closely fits them.
(If agnostics are still not sure how to answer, a more concrete version of the question might be to ask them: "If the person whom you respect and trust the most and know to be very religious said that god had spoken to him or her and had wanted a message conveyed to you to give away all your money and possessions to charity, would you do it?" If you do not think this could have happened and refuse the command with no hesitation, then you are operationally a naturalist. If you say you would do it or are not sure what you would do, then you are effectively a religious person. I suspect that most agnostics will fall into the naturalist camp, since agnostics do not usually expect god to actually do anything concrete.)
This kind of naturalist-religious divide provides a more useful classification scheme since it is based on whether there is any observable difference in the behavior of people as a consequence of their beliefs, rather than on their beliefs themselves. The members of the naturalist group (the atheist, the deist, the pantheist, and most agnostics) all live their lives on the assumption that god does not intervene in life in any way. None of them pray or ask for god to intervene. (Those who did pray would be switched from into the religious group because then they effectively believe in an interventionist god.) As I have said many times before, what people say they believe is of little consequence except insofar as it influences their actions.
So the religious-naturalist divide based on the answer to the question "Do you think that god in any way changes the course of events contrary to natural laws?" is, to my mind, a much better measure of the level of belief in god than the theist-atheist divide. It would be nice to see polls conducted on this question. My suspicion is that there are far more naturalists (i.e. functional unbelievers) than one might suspect.
Next: Should atheists seek to undermine religion or does religion play a valuable role that makes it worth preserving?
POST SCRIPT: Sputnik trivia
Last week saw the fiftieth anniversary of the launching into space by the Soviet Union of the satellite Sputnik, an event that galvanized the US space program. In 1999, a nice film called October Sky was released based on the true story of a group of high school students in a small mining town in West Virginia who were inspired by Sputnik to build rockets on their own. The film was based on the memoir Rocket Boys of one of the boys Homer Hickam, who later did become a rocket scientist for NASA.
A curious feature of this story is that the name October Sky is an anagram of the name Rocket Boys.