Atheists (Correct) vs Theists (Incorrect) vs Agnostics (Confused)

On this particular Sunday morning, I wanted to take a moment to clarify the confusion surrounding the various positions on gods. I generally observe confusion on the terms surrounding religion and belief, and I wanted to address this today, giving the terms clearer and more concise definitions.

The next time you interact with anyone, be it a religious person or not, listen carefully to the words they choose to use. Most often, you will hear a lot of terms thrown around to describe people with various belief systems. Believers in religion will often describe themselves as simply religious most of the time, or will proudly proclaim their particular religion, saying something like, “I am Methodist.” Some people who aren’t so sure about religion will describe themselves as agnostics or unsure. They might just say, “I don’t go to church.”

The first thing to know is that it is critical, should you choose to engage in any sort of discussion or debate with a religious person, that definitions be clearly outlined. Most of the time, when I have engaged in any sort of “debate” with anyone, the terms are not clearly defined. If we are to have any sort of luck having a real debate and moving someone else’s view on a subject, the terms must first be defined, and neither side must be allowed to get away with any loose definitions of terms.

So, fundamental to this debate, let us define the starting terminology for what we could call ourselves with respect to our positions on gods. The following list represents the choices for a person’s philosophy of religion:

  • Theism – The belief that there is at least one god, or multiple gods (a positive claim).
  • Atheism – Divided into two categories: strong atheism and weak atheism. Strong atheism is the position that there are no deities (a positive claim). Weak atheism is the lack of belief that there is at least one god, or multiple gods (not a positive claim).
  • Agnosticism – The belief that there is no way to know about gods.
  • Apatheism – The lack of caring whether or not any gods exist.

The first thing to note is that these philosophical positions are not mutually exclusive. That is, you do not have to be just one at the same time. However, two positions that are not possible to hold at the same time are those of theism and strong atheism. In other words, it would be impossible to believe there is a god and not believe there is a god at the same time. That said, you could be, as I call myself, an agnostic atheist. That is, you can certainly reject the claim that there are gods while at the same time believing that there is no way to know about gods. Likewise, it is possible to be an agnostic theist, believing that there is a god, but being unsure that there is any way to prove its existence.

There are other subsets of these philosophies that serve as positions. For example, under atheism, there is antitheism, which is direct opposition to theism and belief in any gods. Most often, antitheism is synonymous with strong atheism,but not always. Antitheism can mean a direct opposition to religion or belief, for example because some antitheists believe religion is harmful.

Under theism, there are a several positions, including:

  • Pantheism – The belief that God exists as everything around us. This position holds that God is everything.
  • Panentheism – This is a belief that God exists as everything around us (just like pantheism), however also is greater than everything – is transcendent and immanent.
  • Deism – The belief that God is transcendent, but does not interfere in any way with human life or the laws of the universe.
  • Monotheism – Holds that there is a single God who rules the universe as a separate entity.
  • Polytheism – Holds that there are multiple gods who rule the universe as separate entities.
  • Henotheism – The belief that there may or may not be multiple gods or deities, although only a single supreme being exists.
  • Henology – This is the belief that multiple facets (avatars) of a deity or god exist, they represent aspects of the supreme deity or god.

As may become clear by simply reading through the various stances, there are a lot of options for what you believe. However, the purpose of this post is to point out that, again, definitions are vital if we are to have any sort of honest debate. The real question we want to address is, “What do you believe, and why?” It is only from this question that we can extrapolate and identify our positions and hope to move one another at all. The next vital question is, “Do I care whether or not what I believe is true?” I find that it is this second question with which so many people struggle. Some will live in denial their entire lives and never really answer the second question.

I have also found that many who are religious have a vehement and visceral reaction to the words atheist or agnostic. The problem here, and most often in my opinion, is that they just don’t understand what these words really mean. Far too many atheists are likewise just as guilty as theists when it comes to not defining their positions properly. It is somewhat confusing to many a religious person to understand the difference between strong and weak atheism. So atheists need to do a better job clarifying this up front in order to have any hope of having an intelligent conversation with theists.

Atheism is the lack of a belief in any gods. Quite rightly according to grammar and definition, placing an “a” in front of the word theist negates the positive view or claim surrounding the definition. Whereas the theist believes there is a god or gods, the (weak) atheist simply does not believe this claim. He is simply rejecting the theist’s positive claim that there is a god based on a lack of evidence. The burden of proof is on the theist who is making this positive claim. However, once an atheist identifies as a strong atheist (sometimes conflated with the term antitheist) and positively makes the claim that there are no gods, the burden of proof rests on the atheist.

In my mind, logic, reason, and evidence lead me to the philosophical position of agnostic atheism. I am a weak atheist who is agnostic. I make no positive claim about the existence of any deity. I furthermore believe that it is not possible for us to know about such things. I have even wrapped this into my own philosophy statement.

 

Creating a Personal Mission Statement

My company fairly recently developed its mission and vision statement. We frequently hear about companies who have them, but why do they have them, and what are they for?

When we developed the mission and vision statements for my company, we took the process to heart and worked really hard on it. While many mission and vision statements these days are really watered down and essentially meaningless, we really tried to write ours to be something that would be the focus and cornerstone of our business. In a nutshell, the intent was that everything we do as a company moving forward would be focused around our mission and vision. It’s something that will keep us focused as an organization. We will use it as a tool to find the right employees and clients.

As founders of the business, we wanted a way to communicate what we ultimately envisioned the business to be, in terms of growth, values, employees, contributions to society, and the like; therefore, self-reflection by us as founders was a vital activity if a meaningful vision is to be developed. As a founder, once you have defined your vision, you can begin to develop strategies for moving the organization toward that vision.

So that got me to thinking — why shouldn’t we develop personal mission statement? The intent is the same — to communicate what we want our personal lives to be and provide a focal point. The personal mission statement is supported, just like our corporate statement, by the underlying philosophies that support it.

Having self knowledge and developing a personal philosophy is essential to mental well-being. While some of us study philosophy and self knowledge, many others don’t. I would argue that most others don’t.

Personal philosophy becomes a tool for helping you find valuable people to connect with in your life. Whereas in business, the mission and philosophy is used to find the right employees and clients, a personal mission, vision, and philosophy statement will help you connect with people who share the same ideals and values and live by the same principles. And it’s critical to be surrounded by people with whom we can deeply connect.

So what is your personal philosophy, mission, or vision statement? Here is mine:

PERSONAL MISSION STATEMENT
*******************************
I am a passionate advocate for my family and business. I will do everything in my power to provide my wife with a loving husband, my children with a guiding father, and my employees with a visionary and driven business leader. Realizing that I cannot be effective without a well-functioning body and mind, I will make my health a primary focus; nourishing my physical and mental abilities by reading, writing, exercising, and educating myself to provide me with the strength, endurance, and agility I need to remain focused in accomplishing my lifetime goals. My greatest pleasure in life will be to leave behind a lasting legacy to my children, the institutions, and causes I care about.

PHILOSOPHY STATEMENT
*******************************
In my life, I begin with the view that reason and empirical evidence are the methods by which we can know the nature of the universe surrounding us. Speculating about ultimate things and and absolute knowledge is in vain. There is always more we can learn, more we can do. Perfection is unobtainable, so far as we can know. I am comfortable saying, “I don’t know”.

This is not to say that moral relativism is correct. There are intrinsically good and bad behaviours, morally right, wrong, and neutral actions. I accept the view that there is such a thing as universally preferable behaviour, that morality is a continuum of well-being rather than a hard lined, arbitrarily drawn principle mandated by an unknowable source or dogma. Based on these beliefs, I have a rational desire to live for my own benefit and well-being, as well as for the benefit of my fellow man, since the success of others around me benefits me as well.

Holding the non-aggression principle as axiomatic, I work to teach this concept to others around me and apply it to all that I do. Further realizing that all good and worthwhile endeavours take time, I share these philosophical ideas freely with others in order to leave behind thought-provoking ideas for the benefit of future generations and those around me.

Einstein Refutes Atheist Professor…Not

The quoted email below was sent to me several years ago by a friend of mine. He was struggling with religion at the time and took, like many do, to researching and Googling for phrases about God on the Internet.

I am constantly baffled by people sending stupid shit like this to me. It took me all of two minutes to research this and find out that it is yet another futile attempt of Christian apologists to weave a cool sounding story together to “prove” the existence of God. What’s worse is that, if you read the Snopes.com article about it, people actually wrongly identify the student in the story as none other than Albert Einstein.

C’mon people! Do a little research! Also note how the story had changed from the original versions from back around 1999.

“Let me explain the problem science has with Jesus Christ.” The atheist professor of philosophy pauses before his class and then asks one of his new students to stand.

“You’re a Christian, aren’t you, son?”

“Yes sir,” the student says.

“So you believe in God?”

“Absolutely.”

“Is God good?”

“Sure! God’s good.”

“Is God all-powerful? Can God do anything?”

“Yes.”

“Are you good or evil?”

“The Bible says I’m evil.”

The professor grins knowingly. “Aha! The Bible!” He considers for a moment.

“Here’s one for you. Let’s say there’s a sick person over here and you can cure him. You can do it. Would you help him? Would you try?”

“Yes sir, I would.”

“So you’re good…!”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“But why not say that? You’d help a sick and maimed person if you could. Most of us would if we could. But God doesn’t.”

The student does not answer, so the professor continues. “He doesn’t, does he? My brother was a Christian who died of cancer, even though he prayed to Jesus to heal him How is this Jesus good? Hmmm? Can you answer that one?”

The student remains silent.

“No, you can’t, can you?” the professor says. He takes a sip of water from a glass on his desk to give the student time to relax.

“Let’s start again, young fella Is God good?”

“Er…yes,” the student says.

“Is Satan good?”

The student doesn’t hesitate on this one. “No.”

“Then where does Satan come from?”

The student : “From…God…”

“That’s right. God made Satan, didn’t he? Tell me, son. Is there evil in this world?”

“Yes, sir. ”

“Evil’s everywhere, isn’t it? And God did make everything, correct?”

“Yes.”

“So who created evil?” The professor continued, “If God created everything, then God created evil, since evil exists, and according to the principle that our works define who we are, then God is evil.”

Without allowing the student to answer, the professor continues: “Is there sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All these terrible things, do they exist in this world?”

The student: “Yes.”

“So who created them?”

The student does not answer again, so the professor repeats his question. “Who created them? There is still no answer. Suddenly the lecturer breaks away to pace in front of the classroom. The class is mesmerized.

“Tell me,” he continues onto another student. “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, son?”

The student’s voice is confident: “Yes, professor, I do.”

The old man stops pacing. “Science says you have five senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Have you ever seen Jesus?”

“No sir. I’ve never seen Him”

“Then tell us if you’ve ever heard your Jesus?”

“No, sir, I have not.”

“Have you ever actually felt your Jesus, tasted your Jesus or smelt your Jesus? Have you ever had any sensory perception of Jesus Christ, or God for that matter?”

“No, sir, I’m afraid I haven’t.”

“Yet you still believe in him?”

“Yes.”

“According to the rules of empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your God doesn’t exist. What do you say to that, son?”

“Nothing,” the student replies. “I only have my faith.”

“Yes, faith,” the professor repeats. “And that is the problem science has with God. There is no evidence, only faith.”

The student stands quietly for a moment, before asking a question of his own. “Professor, is there such thing as heat?”

“Yes,” the professor replies. “There’s heat.”

“And is there such a thing as cold?”

“Yes, son, there’s cold too.”

“No sir, there isn’t.”

The professor turns to face the student, obviously interested. The room suddenly becomes very quiet. The student begins to explain.

“You can have lots of heat, even more heat, super-heat, mega-heat, unlimited heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat, but we don’t have anything called ‘cold’. We can hit up to 458 degrees below zero, which is no heat, but we can’t go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold; otherwise we would be able to go colder than the lowest -458 degrees. Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-458 F) is the total absence of heat. You see, sir, cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat we can measure in thermal units because heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it.”

Silence across the room. A pen drops somewhere in the classroom, sounding like a hammer.

“What about darkness, professor. Is there such a thing as darkness?”

“Yes,” the professor replies without hesitation. “What is night if it isn’t darkness?”

“You’re wrong again, sir. Darkness is not something; it is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light, but if you have no light constantly you have nothing and it’s called darkness, isn’t it? That’s the meaning we use to define the word. In reality, darkness isn’t. If it were, you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?”

The professor begins to smile at the student in front of him. This will be a good semester. “So what point are you making, young man?”

“Yes, professor. My point is, your philosophical premise is flawed to start with, and so your conclusion must also be flawed.”

The professor’s face cannot hide his surprise this time. “Flawed? Can you explain how?”

“You are working on the premise of duality,” the student explains. “You argue that there is life and then there’s death; a good God and a bad God. You are viewing the concept of God as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, science can’t even explain a thought. It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing. Death is not the opposite of life, just the absence of it.”

“Now tell me, professor. Do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?”

“If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, young man, yes, of course I do”

“Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir?”

The professor begins to shake his head, still smiling, as he realizes where the argument is going. A very good semester, indeed.

“Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you now not a scientist, but a preacher?”

The class is in uproar. The student remains silent until the commotion has subsided.

“To continue the point you were making earlier to the other student, let me give you an example of what I mean.”

The student looks around the room. “Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the professor’s brain?” The class breaks out into laughter.

“Is there anyone here who has ever heard the professor’s brain, felt the professor’s brain, touched or smelled the professor’s brain? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science says that you have no brain, with all due respect, sir. So if science says you have no brain, how can we trust your lectures, sir?”

Now the room is silent. The professor just stares at the student, his face unreadable.

Finally, after what seems an eternity, the old man answers. “I guess you’ll have to take them on faith.”

“Now, you accept that there is faith, and, in fact, faith exists with life,” the student continues. “Now, sir, is there such a thing as evil?”

Now uncertain, the professor responds, “Of course, there is. We see it everyday. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.”

To this the student replied, “Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God.

God did not create evil. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.”

The professor sat down.

Pass this on if you have faith and love Jesus.

I’ll Pray For You

My son was admitted to the hospital three days ago. He had been afflicted with a high fever for the previous three weeks, ranging between 102-104 degrees Ferehnheit. The day he was admitted, he exhibited symptoms including fever, rash, and severe agitation and confusion. Because he wasn’t acting like himself, the concern during that episode was obviously that whatever was causing these symptoms was causing some sort of neurological damage. We’re still here, sitting in the hospital, as I write this post, and the doctors still aren’t certain what is causing all of his symptoms. The closest diagnosis that fits is something called Kawasaki Disease (or Kawasaki Syndrome). And so, here we sit, waiting for more tests and answers.

“I’ll keep him in my prayers.”

That is what most of the people we tell will say. I have many emails sitting in my inbox containing that phrase, or something like it. I received one from his aunt telling us how she went to chapel and prayed for him and his doctors.

I could go on and write a post about how utterly ridiculous this sentiment is, but since I’ve been really into comedy lately, I’m going to let comedian Hannibal Burress make the point for me:

I don’t like when people say, I’ll pray for you.
So basically you’re going to sit at home and do nothing?
That’s what your prayers are, you’re doing nothing, while I struggle with the situation.
Don’t pray for me, make me a sandwich or something, because I’m very upset right now and I can’t make my own sandwich, so it would be cool if you could make me a sandwich or something instead of praying, because praying is lazy.

“We’ll keep you in our thoughts”

With the other bullshit in your heads? No, keep me out of your thoughts, because I hear some of the stuff you talk about and if that’s close to what you’re thinking about, I don’t want to be around that, so keep me and my family out of your thoughts, unless you’re thinking of making me a sandwich.

Hannibal  Buress - make me a sandwich - Antitheist atheist

Epicurus on God

Epicurus’ Trilemma:

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?

This is a quote attributed to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, although it is possible that it is wrongly attributed to him and really should be attributed to Carneades.

Rich Dad, Poor Dad: Where I Learned My Take on Money

Money has always been a source of contention in my life. I saw money become a key factor in the separation, and eventual divorce, of my parents. For some, money is just part of the normal course of life and they learn to handle it well as a part of their daily lives. I was not so fortunate in my experience with this life resource.

As a child, I was taught early on that we could never have enough of the stuff. There was always a sense of urgency around the house to have more of it. In particular, my father always seemed uneasy about his status in life, and this made a lasting impression on the way I would view money and power in my own life.

Even though I was only in the fifth grade, I was smart and could read between the lines, as I believe most kids are. If there is one thing that teaching kids and having my own children has taught me – it is that they are intuitive and observant. Oftentimes, and even though we may not want them to as adults, kids know what is happening around them, even though they might not have the tools to verbalize or explain it at the time. An example that comes to mind is when parents don’t want their children to hear what they are talking about and they spell out the words: “Don’t tell Mikey about the S-U-R-P-R-I-S-E.” As a child, I heard that constant spelling and inferences between my mother and father, and was always wondering why they couldn’t just T-A-L-K about it instead of believing that I didn’t understand. Why did they feel compelled to act like I was stupid?

The communication level was horrible in the house. And while I don’t believe it was all about the money, it certainly didn’t help the situation, since money is vital to the success or failure of a family to be sure. My parents never actually learned to communicate in a mature way, which would hinder any relationship, let alone one with money struggles. They simply stopped growing up at some point, and didn’t know how to hear the truth about themselves, much less from one another. And so, after we moved back then into a house we couldn’t really afford, money became a central force in my parents’ lives that would end up contributing to their eventual divorce.

You see, my father was obsessed with money. It always seemed that my mother was at odds with him about how to handle the family paychecks, and so this became a regular theme in my young life. There always seemed to be a discrepancy or dispute about what was spent, and who was bringing in the money in the family.

I remember how excited my dad was to move into our new house when I was around 9 years old. I thought it was exciting too, but I was mostly excited about helping dad with replacing the carpet, painting, and all the work that needed to be done. I never quite felt like dad understood that I didn’t care about the house, I just cared about being with him.

Dad wasn’t good with money, but he loved it. I remember a particular occasion when he remodeled one of the neighborhood garages, at what I’m sure was a steep discount (Dad was never charging what he was worth due to a certain lack of self esteem). He proudly laid out $100 bills on the kitchen counter, and I imagine he felt like the richest man in the world. I thought it was pretty neat seeing all the money. I’ll never forget the look in my dad’s eyes or his attitude –he was so proud of that money on the counter and the work he had done. He should have realized that it wasn’t about the money. I remember asking myself whether it was really worth it. All the while, his son stood idly by, waiting for the opportunity to work on the garage with him.

My mother walked into the room shortly thereafter, made some comment — presumably one that triggered his sense of inadequacy — and they got into a horrible shouting match all night that night, screaming profanities and vicious remarks at the top of their lungs about how much they hated one another, as was their typical “conversation” style at the time.

I’ll never forget two things about that night: regretting that my father didn’t use that moment as a teaching opportunity and wondering why my parents just couldn’t just give each other honest compliments and feedback. There was so much jealousy and anger there, so much of it revolved around their economic situation, and I certainly realized it.

Dad was obviously good with tools. He had a collection of them that could have rivaled any professional contractor’s set. That night, I sat in my room and wasn’t upset about them fighting. I was wondering what I did wrong. Why wouldn’t dad show me the secret to building something that I could be proud of? Was I the reason they were fighting? Why did money matter that much to them?

More recently – and more to the point – shortly after a recent counseling session with my family, I had a conversation with my sister. She remarked, “I just don’t want you to end up as some asshole millionaire.” It was obvious from her comment that she has been shaped by the insecurity of my parents’ own failures, even to this day – nearly 25 years later.

While my father may have had tools to build the garage, he didn’t have the tools to look past the money and see that as a relationship-building opportunity with my mother or me that day. He was so focused on his own accomplishment that he never took a moment to simply include us in his joy. She felt excluded (probably a little jealous, too) and lashed out. Dad didn’t have the “right stuff” that day, nor did he have the right tools to communicate with us or our mother.

I can’t blame my sister for holding this view, and I understand why, like her, many others do. I believe people aren’t shaped necessarily by money, but by their experiences surrounding it. Most often, that experience comes directly from our parents and mentors. As the adage goes, you can’t take it with you. We live in a world where far too many folks are proud, greedy, and trade philosophy and relationship-building opportunities for the love of something that doesn’t really matter in the long run. It’s an obvious recipe for disaster in relationships.

And these days, people with money, no matter how they obtained it, are the subject of an awful lot of scrutiny and jealousy. Documentary films like Inside Job, Capitalism: A Love Story, and others portray those who earn millions as jerks and just plain greedy people who are out to get everybody. This is simply untrue.

At the same time, the interesting psychological after-effect for me is that I sometimes find myself feeling that same sense of jealousy about others who have lots of money. The other day we went over to a friend’s house for dinner and I found myself feeling this way after I saw their house. You see, we send our children to a prestigious private school – not because we have a lot of money, but because they were “destined” for it. My wife’s grandfather founded the school. So we often hang out with folks who have a lot whereas we don’t (they are the true “upper crust” of our area). I get just as envious as the next guy of those driving the Maseratis and Ferraris thinking, “Wow, that would be cool.” It’s an interesting dichotomy to live in.