bookmark_borderThe Resurrection: Types of Skeptical Views

The traditional Christian view of the resurrection of Jesus involves a number of beliefs or claims:

  1. Jesus existed.
  2. Jesus was crucified.
  3. Jesus died while he was on the cross.
  4. After he was crucified, Jesus was buried in a stone tomb in the evening on the day that he was crucified.
  5. The stone tomb where Jesus was buried (on the day that he was crucified) was empty on Sunday morning, about 48 hours after Jesus was crucified.
  6. On Sunday, about 48 hours after Jesus was crucified, some of Jesus’ disciples had experiences that they believed were ordinary sense experiences of Jesus as a living, walking, and talking person in a physical body (i.e. not a ghost or spirit).

There are different degrees of skepticism about religious beliefs.  First, there are different degrees of disbelief or doubt.  The strongest sort of skepticism asserts that a specific belief is CLEARLY FALSE.  A slightly weaker form of skepticism asserts that a specific belief is PROBABLY FALSE.  An even weaker form of skepticsim asserts that a specific belief is NOT PROBABLY TRUE, and the weakest form of disbelief is to assert that the belief is NOT CLEARLY TRUE .
Second, there are degrees of skepticism in relation to the epistemological role of the belief that the skeptic challenges: how basic or essential is the assumption in the believer’s system of beliefs?  Skepticism about the existence of God is an extreme form of skepticsm, because belief in the existence of God is a very basic belief for Christians (and Jews and Muslims).  Skepticism about whether Jesus literally walked on water is a less extreme form of skepticism, because one could doubt that particular story about Jesus while still maintaining belief in the existence of God, and even while maintaining the belief that Jesus was the divine Son of God and savior of humankind.
There are different skeptical views in relation to the resurrection story.  The most extreme skeptical view rejects claim (1) as false or as probably false or as being dubious or unjustified.  If (1) is clearly false, then all of the five remaining claims must also be rejected, since they all presuppose that Jesus existed.  If (1) is probably false, then all of the five remaining are probably false (or probably involve a false assumption).  If (1) is a dubious claim or an unjustified belief, then so are the remaining beliefs or claims.  Call this TYPE I skepticism about the resurrection:
TYPE I: skeptic doubts (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), and (6).
The next skeptical view is only slightly less extreme: (1) is true, but (2) is rejected as clearly false, or as probably false, or as being dubious or unjustified.  If (2) is clearly false, then the four remaining claims–other than (1)–must also be rejected, since they all presuppose that Jesus was crucified.  If (2) is probably false, then the remaining claims are also probably false (or probably based on a false assumption).  If (2) is dubious or unjustified, then the remaining claims are also dubious or unjustified.  Call this TYPE II skepticism about the resurrection:
TYPE II: skeptic doubts (2), (3), (4), (5), and (6), but not (1).
The next sort of skepticsm is less extreme: (1) is true and (2) is true, but (3) is rejected as clearly false, or as probably false, or as being dubious or unjustified.  Call this TYPE III skepticism about the resurrection.
Since claims (4), (5), and (6) only presuppose that Jesus was crucified–claim (2)–and do NOT presuppose that Jesus died on the cross,  one could be a TYPE III skeptic, and yet accept some or all of the remaining three claims. So, there are different sub-categories for TYPE III skepticism:
TYPE IIIa: skeptic doubts (3), (4), (5), and (6), but not (1), and not (2).
TYPE IIIb: skeptic doubts (3), (4), and (5), but not (1), and not (2), and not (6).
TYPE IIIc: skeptic doubts (3), (5) and (6), but not (1), and not (2), and not (4).
TYPE IIId: skeptic doubts (3) and (6), but not (1), and not (2), and not (4), and not (5).
TYPE IIIe: skeptic doubts (3), but not (1), and not (2), and not (4), and not (5), and not (6).
Because claim (5) presupposes the truth of claim (4), there is no coherent skeptical position in which claim (4) is doubted but claim (5) is accepted.
The next sort of skepticism accepts the first three claims of the Christian story, but doubts the fourth claim.  Call this TYPE IV skepticism.  It is possible to doubt or reject (4) but accept claim (6), so there are two sub-categories of TYPE IV skepticism:
TYPE IVa: skeptic doubts (4), (5) and (6), but not (1), and not (2), and not (3).
TYPE IVb: skeptic doubts (4) and (5), but not (1), and not (2), and not (3), and not (6).
The next sort of skeptic accepts the first four claims, but doubts claim (5).  Call this TYPE V skepticism.  Doubting or rejecting (5) does not require that one also doubt (6),  so there are two sub-categories of this type of skepticism:
TYPE Va: skeptic doubts (5) and (6), but not (1), and not (2), and not (3), and not (4).
TYPE Vb: skeptic doubts (5), but not (1), and not (2), and not (3), and not (4), and not (6).
The final sort of skeptic doubts only claim (6), and accepts the other five claims:
TYPE VI:  skeptic doubts (6), but not (1), and not (2), and not (3), and not (4), and not (5).
Based on the above analysis, there are twelve different types of skeptic, just in terms of which of the six basic resurrection claims are doubted and which are accepted.  There are further permutations of these twelve types of skepticism based on the degree of disbelief the skeptic has for any particular doubted claim.  We should distinguish at least four different levels or degrees of doubt:   CLEARLY FALSE,  PROBABLY FALSE, NOT PROBABLY TRUE, and NOT CLEARLY TRUE.
For a few of the above TYPES of skepticism only one claim is doubted (VI, Vb, IIIe), and there are only four permutations for each of those types of skepticism,  in terms of degrees of disbelief.
But when there are multiple claims doubted, many permutations of those types of skepticism are possible, since one doubted belief may be thought to be clearly false, while another might only be thought probably false, and a third viewed only as not clearly true.  Many different permutations are potentially possible for the other types of skepticism.
In some cases the degree of doubt for one claim will determine the appropriate degree of doubt for other claims.  For example, if a skeptic believes that (1) is clearly false, then this implies that the other five claims are also clearly false (or are based on an assumption that is clearly false).  But in other cases, the degree of doubt for one claim will NOT determine the appropriate degree of doubt for another claim.  For example, if a skeptic believes that (4) and (5) are clearly false, and also doubts (6), the degree of doubt about (6) might be less, perhaps just that (6) is not clearly true (that it is dubious or unjustified).
Since there are AT LEAST four permutations for each of the twelve types of skepticism, there are AT LEAST 48 different sorts of skepticism about the resurrection story when we take into account both which beliefs are doubted and the degree of disbelief the skeptic has towards the doubted beliefs.

bookmark_borderResponse to William Lane Craig – Part 10

Here is my main objection to William Craig’s case for the resurrection of Jesus:
It is not possible for a person to rise from the dead until AFTER that person has actually died. Thus, in order to prove that Jesus rose from the dead, one must first prove that Jesus died on the cross. But in most of William Craig’s various books, articles, and debates, he simply ignores this issue. He makes no serious attempt to show that it is an historical fact that Jesus died on the cross.  For that reason, I’m convinced that Craig’s case for the resurrection is a complete failure.
Here is WLC’s main reply to my objection:
The reason that I personally have not devoted any space to a discussion of the death of Jesus by crucifixion is that this fact is not in dispute. This historical fact is not one that is controversial among biblical scholars. 
Craig supports this point by giving examples of biblical scholars who express great confidence in the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus and Jesus’ death on the cross: Luke Johnson and Robert Funk.  In Parts 2 through 8 of this series, I have argued that the example of the biblical scholar Luke Johnson fails to support his point.  I will now argue that the same is true of the biblical scholar Robert Funk.
Craig quotes a part of a comment by Robert Funk:
In fact, the death of Jesus is so well established that according to Robert Funk, who was the co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, the crucifixion of Jesus was “one indisputable fact” that neither the early Christians nor their opponents could deny.
The footnote for this quoted three-word phrase is rather vague:  “Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar videotape.”  The Jesus Seminar was in operation from 1985 to 1998, so a Jesus Seminar videotape could have been produced anytime in that fourteen-year window.  I have little hope of locating the particular Jesus Seminar videotape that this quote was taken from, so I have no way to either confirm the accuracy of the quote or to determine the meaning of the three-word phrase in the context of what Funk was talking about at that point.  I do not find this to be convincing evidence that Funk believed that the crucifixion of Jesus is a certain or nearly certain historical fact.
Furthermore, based on Funk’s comments in his book Honest to Jesus (published in 1996, hereafter: HTJ), it seems to me that although Funk believes that it is probable that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross, Funk believes that this claim is less than certain, and that there can be reasonable doubt about this claim:
There is nothing in the Christian story, so far as I can see, that is immune from doubt.  The crucifixion of Jesus is not entirely beyond question….We do not know for a fact that he was buried.  His body may have been left to rot on the cross, to become carrion for dogs and crows….Even the existence of Jesus has been challenged more than once and not without justification.  We should begin by admitting that all of these myths and legends may rest on nothing other than the fertile imagination of early believers. (HTJ, p.219-220)
The crucifixion is NOT “beyond question” according to Funk.  Even the very existence of Jesus as an historical person is NOT beyond question according to Funk.
This openness of Funk to doubt about the crucifixion of Jesus is in keeping with Funk’s general skepticism.  In Chapter 1 of Honest to Jesus, Funk proposes seven ground rules for the quest of the historical Jesus.   Three of Funk’s seven ground rules clearly support a skeptical outlook in the study of Jesus:
Rule One
Human knowledge is finite.  It is fallible, limited, subject to correction.  If it were not, study and learning would be unnecessary.  This applies, willy-nilly, to the Bible, to the pope, to ecclesiastical bureaucrats and contemporary preachers alike.  And to scholars. (HTJ, p.24)
 Rule Five
In spite of the sciences, impressive methodological advances, and the knowledge explosion, we still cannot be certain that we can tell the difference between illusion and reality.
Aspects of what we think we see and hear, of what we believe we know, are almost certainly illusory.  The social world we inhabit as human beings was created for us by our historical and social contexts and by our own imaginations.  We are products, to a greater or lesser extent, of our own creative activity….One consequence of this arrangement is that we are constantly being deceived….illusion and error are a part of the human condition.  (HTJ, p.26)
Rule Seven
No matter how many illusions we dispel, no matter how firm the conclusions we reach this time around, we will turn out to be wrong in some way, perhaps in many ways, down the road.  Someone, somewhere, sometime will have to come along and correct our mistakes while adding their own. (HTJ, p.26)
Given this skeptical outlook, it is no surprise that Funk is open to doubt about the crucifixion of Jesus and even to doubt about the existence of Jesus.  Funk rejects the view that the existence of Jesus and the crucifixion of Jesus are beyond question.
It is not merely this general skeptical outlook that casts doubt on the crucifixion, but a number of specific skeptical assumptions held by Funk that cast significant doubt on the crucifixion of Jesus and the on the claim that Jesus died on the cross.  I will argue that if one accepts Funk’s various skeptical assumptions, then one cannot rationally conclude that it is nearly certain that Jesus was crucified and that Jesus died on the cross.
Before I discuss Funk’s specific skeptical assumptions, however, I would like to touch on another aspect of Funk’s general viewpoint:  his cynicism.  I appreciate Funk’s cynicism.  Though Funk believes in God, and has some sort of very liberal belief or faith in Jesus, he is a kindred spirit, as far as I am concerned.   I appreciate Funk’s skepticism and his cynicism.
My own skepticism, I believe, arises out of cynicism, at least in part.   I suspect the same is true for many other skeptics, and it appears to me that Funk’s skepticism might also arise out of cynicism, at least in part.  So, I would like to share a few selected quotes that reflect Funk’s cynicism.
In the Prologue of Honest to Jesus, Funk lists ten of his personal convictions.  Two of them embody cynicism about human thinking:
8. I believe in original sin, but I take original sin to mean the innate infinite capacity of human beings to deceive themselves.
9.  I have come to see that the self-deception inherent in “original sin” prompts human beings to believe that what they want is what they are really entitled to and what they will eventually get–things like unending life in another world and absolute justice in this.  I doubt that it will work out that way.  (HTJ, p.11)
Funk experesses cynicism about his own conversion experience (and about other Christian believers):
…in the exuberance of youth, I thought it extremely important to hold the correct opinions.  I didn’t really know what the correct opinions were, but friends and others around me seemed to know, so I embraced theirs when I could understand them and sometimes when I couldn’t.  Among them was the good confession.  In response to prompting, I said Jesus was my personal savior.  Nobody explained to me what that entailed.  It has taken me several decades to get even a hint of what it could mean.
Most of us cling to opinions received secondhand and worn like used clothing. … (HTJ, p.4)
Funk experesses cynicism about Americans in general:
I am happy to report that I am the victim of a good education.  I would undoubtedly have grown up opinionated, narrow-minded, and bigoted like many Americans, but I had the misfortune, or the good fotune, of having excellent teachers. (HTJ, p.4)
Funk experesses cynicism about Christian ministers:
I started out to be a parish minister but soon learned that passion for truth was not compatible with that role.  In self-defense I became a scholar. (HTJ, p.5)
Funk expresses cynicism about churches and seminaries:
In Jesus as Precursor, a book I wrote while teaching in the Divinity School, I concluded that theologians should abandon the cloistered precincts of the church and seminary  where nothing real was on the agenda.   I soon followed my own advice.
The longing for intellectual freedom drove me out of the seminary and into a secular university. … the university had become my church and learning my real vocation. (HTJ, p. 5)
… I discovered that by and large what my students learned in seminary did not get passed on to parish memebers; in fact, it seems to have little or no bearing on the practice of ministry at all.  I was chagrined to learn that I was investing in an enterprise with no prospect of return. (HTJ, p.6)
Funk expresses cynicism about universities and academia:
The University of Montana taught me another hard lesson:  universities are much like churches, replete with orthodoxies of various kinds, courts of inquisition, and severe penalties for those who do not embrace mediocrity and the teacher’s union.  Preoccupation with political trivia and insulation from the real world eventually pushed me to abandon that final sanctuary.  (HTJ, p.5)
…my academic colleagues and I were trapped in a perpetual holding pattern dictated to us by a system of rewards and sanctions in the university.    That system prevented us, or at least discouraged us, from entering the public domain with learning that mattered.  In their book, The Social Construction of Reality, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman define intellectuals as experts whose specialized knowledge is not wanted, is not even tolerated, by the general public.  (HTJ, p.6)
Funk expresses cynicism about the general level of knowledge about religion and the Bible:
In our time, religious literacy has reached a new low in spite of our scholarship, in spite of the remarkable advances in research and publication our academic disciplines have made. (HTJ, p.5-6)
Jesus is a topic of wide public interest, and the ancient gospels are the subject of profound public ignorance. (HTJ, p.7)
All of this cynicism from Funk is found in the short Prologue of Honest to Jesus, and there is much more of this cynicism expressed in Chapters 1, 2, and 3, but I will spare you from any further cynical comments, and move on (in the next post) to taking a closer look at a number of specific skeptical assumptions held by Funk.
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Here is an INDEX to posts in this series.
 

bookmark_borderWhat is Atheism? – Part 2

Levels of Analysis

I’m going to make a second attempt to clarify and define the word “atheism”.  This time, I will emphasize that the analysis and definitions exist at different levels.  Swinburne’s clarification and analysis of “God exists” makes use of different levels of definition or analysis:
Level 0:  “God exists.”
Level 1:  God exists IF AND ONLY IF exactly one divine person exists.
Level 2:  X is a divine person IF AND ONLY IF X is a spirit who is eternally omnipotent, eternally omniscient, eternally perfectly morally good, the creator of the universe, and a source of moral obligations for human beings.
 
Level 3: X is a spirit IF AND ONLY IF X is a bodiless person.
Level 3:  Person P is a perfectly morally good person IF AND ONLY IF  P is so constituted that P always chooses to do the best action when there is a best action, or one equal best action when there are  two or more equal best actions available, or a good action when there is no best or equal best action, and P never chooses to do a bad action.
Level 3:  X is eternally Y IF AND ONLY IF  X has characteristic Y at every moment in the past, and X has characteristic Y now, and X has characteristic Y at every moment in the future.
In Level 1, Swinburne clarifies or defines the words or phrases in Level 0.  In Level 2, Swinburne clarifies or defines the words used in the definition in Level 1.  In Level 3, Swinburne clarifies or defines the words used in the definitions in Level 2, and so on…
I am not saying that this is a good or correct analysis of “God exists” , just that I think it is a good idea or strategy to analyze complex ideas this way, with levels of definition or analysis.  One advantage is that we might be able to arrive at agreement more easily at the lower levels (such as at Level 1 or Level 2) than at the higher levels (such as Level 3 or higher), and that would still be progress worth making.
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Atheism is Opposition to Theism

Etymology does NOT determine the meaning or use of a word.  However, in the case of the word “atheism”, etymology does reflect the basic logic of the word.  Atheism is in opposition to theism.  Roughly speaking, an atheist is someone who REJECTS or DENIES theism.  The concept of atheism is logically dependent on the concpet of theism.  One can know what “atheism” means only if one knows what “theism” means.
Just as theism is an intellectual position, so atheism is an intellectual position.  It is a common mistake to think that “atheism” refers to the lack or absence of theistic belief.  Newborn babies lack theistic belief, but that does not mean that newborn babies are atheists.  Newborn babies are neither thesits nor atheists nor agnostics.  Newborn babies do not have an intellectual position about the existence of “God” or about the existence of “gods”.
Cats and dogs lack theistic belief, but neither cats nor dogs are atheists.  Cats and dogs have no intellectual position on the question “Does God exist?” nor on the question “Do any gods exist?”   Cats and dogs are neither theists, nor atheists, nor agnostics.  Rocks and trees lack theistic belief, but rocks and trees are NOT atheists.  Rocks and trees do not have an intellectual position on the question of the existence of God, or gods.  Rocks and trees are neither theists, nor atheists, nor agnostics.
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The Ambiguity of the Word “Theism”

But the word “theism” is somewhat unclear and problematic, which in turn makes the word “atheism” somewhat unclear and problematic.   First of all, “theism” is an ambiguous word:

theism

n. Belief in the existence of a god or gods, esp. belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world.
(The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Edition)
Sometimes “theism” is used in a broader sense that refers to belief in any sort of god or gods.   Sometimes the word “theism” is used in a narrow sense that refers to traditional western theism (the dictionary speaks of belief in “a personal God as creator…”).  To be clear about which of these senses one intends, we can use adjectives to qualify the term “theism”.
traditional western theism – the belief that God exists (where this belief is understood in keeping with the  traditional concept of God found in the three major western religions).
general theism – the belief that one or more gods exist.
Because there are two differnent senses of the word “theism”, there are two different senses of the word “atheism” that correspond to those two senses of “theism”:
weak atheism – the rejection of traditional western theism.
strong atheism – the rejection of general theism.
If one rejects general theism, then this implies that one ought to also reject traditional western theism.  If one rejects the claim that “There is at least one god”, then one ought to also reject the claim “God exists”, because “God exists” logically implies that “There is at least one god.”  Therefore, if one accepts strong atheism, then one ought also to accept weak atheism, because strong atheism logically implies weak atheism.
But one can reject traditional western theism without rejecting general theism.  One could, for example, reject the claim “God exists” because one believes that the concept of “God” contains a contradiction (say, between the divine attribute of omniscience and the divine attribute of perfect goodness), but have no similar objection to the concept of a “god”, and thus not reject general theism.  Thus it is possible to accept weak atheism without accepting strong atheism.
Given the disambiguation of “theism” and the corresponding disambiguation of “atheism”, it follows that one can be both a theist and an atheist without self-contradiction.  One could accept weak atheism (and thus reject traditional western theism) while also accepting general theism, by believing in the existence of one or more (finite) gods.  For example, if a person believes that Zeus exists, then that person believes that “There is at least one god” (namely Zeus), but that person might also REJECT traditional western theism, and thus reject the claim that “God exists”.  Such a person would accept weak atheism and also accept general theism.  Therefore, such a person would be both an atheist (in accepting weak atheism) and also a theist (in accepting general theism).
Here are some general advantages to the above proposed terminology:
1. It  encompasses the insight that  atheism is an intellectual position, and avoids the common mistake of viewing atheism as being merely the lack or absence of a particular belief.
2. It recognizes the ambiguity of the word “theism” and avoids confusion and equivocation by the use of adjectives to clarify which of the two senses of the word is intended.
3. It recognizes the logical dependency of the concept of  “atheism” on the concept of “theism” by creating a set of two categories of “atheism” corresponding to the two categories of “theism”.
4. The use of the word “rejection” (as opposed to “denial” or “negation” or “false”) allows the term “atheism” to include skeptics who deny that the claim “God exists” makes a statement that could be true or false.  Some skeptical philosophers assert that the sentence “God exists” does not express a true statement, and also does not express a false statement.  But such a view can be understood as a “rejection” of traditional western theism.  This also allows for atheists who reject the claim “God exists” not because they are convinced that the claim is false, but because they are not convinced that it is true.  Many atheists assert that the evidence for the claim “God exists” is too weak to justify acceptance of this belief.  Such atheists admit that the claim “God exists” might turn out to be true, but that we ought to reject this claim unless and until someone provides solid evidence for the truth of the claim.
5. Distinguishing different forms of “atheism” would be useful for making the point that everyone, or nearly every sane adult, is an atheist, in the sense that nearly every sane adult rejects belief in one or more gods.  Christians, for example, generally reject belief in Zeus and in the other gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons.  These Greek and Roman gods lack the infinite and unlimited characteristics of the God of traditional western theism.  So, we could define a specific category of theism in which a person believes in one or more finite gods, gods who lack one of more of the following attributes:  (a) eternally omnipotent, (b) eternally omniscient, (c) eternally perfectly morally good, (d) the creator of the universe, (e) a source of moral obligations for human beings.  Let’s call this “finite theism”.  Christians reject finite theism, and thus Christians could be categorized as holding the position of “finite atheism” – the rejection of finite theism.
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Varieties of Unbelief

I have previously focused in on two varieties of unbelief:
1. Belief that “God exists” makes a false statement.
2. Belief that “God exists” does not make a true statement and does not make a false statement (because it does not make any statement at all).
But there are various sorts of unbelief/atheism.  Some atheists say that the belief that “God exists” should be rejected because…

  • it is certainly false
  • it is can be proven to be false
  • it can be proven that it does not make any sort of statement
  • it is probably false
  • it probably does not make any sort of statement
  • it has not been proven to be true
  • it is not provable
  • it is not a scientifically testable belief
  • it is not subject to empirical confirmation or disconfirmation
  • the evidence for it is too weak to justify belief 
  • the word “God” is too unclear and ambiguous to allow for a rational evaluation of this claim

There are a wide variety of reasons for rejecting the belief that “God exists”, but so long as one is aware of the view or belief that “God exists” and one chooses to not accept that view or belief, then that constitutes REJECTION of the belief and thus is a form of atheism.
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Levels of Analysis of Atheism

Level 0:  Person P holds the intellectual position of weak atheism.
Level 0: Person P holds the intellectual position of strong atheism.
 
Level 1:  Person P holds the intellectual position of weak atheism IF AND ONLY IF person P rejects traditional western theism.
Level 1: Person P holds the intelletual position of strong atheism IF AND ONLY IF person P rejects general theism.
 
Level 2: Person P rejects view V IF AND ONLY IF person P is aware of veiw V and P has chosen to not accept view V.
Level 2: Person P accepts traditional western theism IF AND ONLY IF person P believes that God exists, where this belief is understood in keeping with the traditional concept of God as found in the three major western religions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).
Level 2: Person P accepts general theism IF AND ONLY IF person P believes that one or more gods exist.
 
Level 3:  Person P believes that God exists, where this belief is understood in keeping with the traditional concept of God as found in the three major western religions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) IF AND ONLY IF person P believes that there is exactly one divine person.
 
Level 4:  Person P believes that there is exactly one divine person IF AND ONLY IF person P believes that there is exacly one spirit who is eternally omnipotent, eternally omniscient, eternally perfectly morally good, the creator of the universe, and a source of moral obligations for human beings.
 
Level 5:  X is a spirit IF AND ONLY IF X is a bodiless person.
Level 5:  X is eternally Y IF AND ONLY IF  X has characteristic Y at every moment in the past, and X has characteristic Y now, and X has characteristic Y at every moment in the future.
We do not have to arrive at agreement at Level 4 or Level 5 in order to make intellectual progress on clarification and analysis of “atheism”.
If we can arrive at agreement at Level 2 or Level 3, that will still be some significant intellectual progress.
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Counterexamples to My Previously Proposed Definitions

My previous proposals have run into a couple of powerful counterexamples.  Here are the definitions that I originally proposed:

DEF4A

Person P accepts WEAK ATHEISM if and only if P believes that the sentence “God exists” does NOT express a true statement.

DEF4B

Person P accepts STRONG ATHEISM if and only if P believes that the sentence “One or more gods exist” does NOT express a true statement.

 One counterexample stems from the fact that I am pointing to sentences in the English language.  But there are atheists who do not speak or understand the English language.  Some atheists might only understand French or German or Spanish.  Such a person would presumably have no opinion about whether the sentence “God exists” expresses a true statement, or even whether it expresses any statement at all.
Another counterexample stems from the fact that people can have a mistaken understanding or interpretation of a particular sentence in English, even if that person has a general understanding of the English language.  Suppose that someone who understood English had very limited exposure to western religions and interpreted the sentence “God exists” to mean “there is life after death”.  If this person believed there was no such thing as life after death, then this person would believe that the sentence “God exists” does  NOT express a true statement.  Yet this person might well believe that God exists while denying that there is life after death.  In that case, this person would NOT be correctly categorized as a “weak atheist”.

bookmark_borderWhat is Atheism?

I know this is a well-worn topic, but I think it is worth hashing over this old question one more time.
First, some obvious points that many ignorant, bible-thumping, knuckle-dragging bigots are unable to grasp:
1. ATHEISM is not the same as MATERIALISM (not all atheists are materialists).
2. ATHEISM is not the same as MARXISM (not all atheists are Marxists).
3. ATHEISM is not the same as HUMANISM (not all atheists are Humanists).
4. ATHEISM is not the same as AGNOSTICISM (not all atheists are agnostics).
5. ATHEISM is not the same as SKEPTICISM (not all atheists are skeptics).
6. ATHEISM is not the same as NATURALISM (not all atheists are naturalists).
7. ATHEISM is not the same as EXISTENTIALISM (not all atheists are Existentialists).
If you don’t understand these basic and obvious points, then please stop reading this post now, and go back to your cave or to your church’s para-military compound in Arkansas or Alabama.
Now for something a bit more sophisticated.   Consider the following initial, rough definition of “atheism”:
DEF1
Person P accepts ATHEISM if and only if P believes that “There is no God.”
There are a couple of problems with this definition.  First of all, (DEF1) is compatible with someone being a polytheist.  One can both believe that “There is no God” and at the same time (without any contradiction) believe that “There are many gods”.  To believe that “There is no God” is to believe that there is no god who is the one-and-only all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal creator of the universe.
But denying that there is a god who has infinite power, infinite knowledge, and infinite duration is NOT the same as denying that there is any god whatsoever.  One could deny the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal god and yet believe that there are many gods who have finite power, and finite knowledge, and/or who are of finite duration.  In other words, one can reject traditional western theism (the belief in God found in the western religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and yet be a polytheist and believe in the existence of many finite gods.
A second problem with (DEF1) is that it does not make room for atheists who claim that the concept of “God” is incoherent.  A.J. Ayer, Antony Flew, and Kai Nielsen were all atheist philosophers, but they all believe that the sentence “God exists” is incoherent.  They believe that the sentence “God exists” is neither true nor false.  So, they also believe that the negation or denial of this sentence is also incoherent.  Thus, none of these atheist philosophers believed that the sentence “There is no God” makes a true statement.  On the basis of (DEF1) none of these atheist philosophers would be categorized as being an “atheist”.
The best solution to the first problem, is to draw a distinction between strong and weak atheism.  Weak atheism is the denial of traditional western theism.  Strong atheism is the denial of the existence of any and all gods.
DEF2A
Person P accepts WEAK ATHEISM if and only if P believes that “There is no God.”
DEF2B
Person P accepts STRONG ATHEISM if and only if P believes that “There are no gods.”
On these definitions, strong atheism implies weak atheism, but weak atheism does not imply strong atheism.  Someone who believes that “There are no gods” must also believe (to be logically consistent) that “There is no God”.  But some one who believes “There is no God” could believe that “There are some gods” (i.e. gods who are finite in power, knowledge, or duration).
These definitions, however, do not get around the second objection, concening atheists who believe that the sentence “God exists” fails to make a coherent statement.  One way to get around the second objection would be to characterize atheism not as a belief, but as the absence of a belief:
DEF3A
Person P accepts WEAK ATHEISM if and only if P does NOT believe that “God exists.”
DEF3B
Person P accepts STRONG ATHEISM if and only if P does NOT believe that “One or more gods exist.”
But while these definitions might get around both the first and second objections, they are still problematic, because we think of atheism as being an intellectual position or stance.  The lack of a belief, however, is not an intellectual position.  Presumably, ALL BABIES lack the belief that “God exists”, but it is absurd and counterintuitive to say that ALL BABIES are atheists.  Babies simply don’t have any position on the question of the existence of God, and they certainly do not have a position on whether the sentence “God exists” expresses a coherent statement.
I propose an alternative way to deal with the second objection, a way that preserves the view that atheism is an intellectual position or stance, and that avoids the counterintuitive implication that ALL BABIES are atheists:
DEF4A
Person P accepts WEAK ATHEISM if and only if P believes that the sentence “God exists” does NOT express a true statement.
DEF4B
Person P accepts STRONG ATHEISM if and only if P believes that the sentence “One or more gods exist” does NOT express a true statement.
As far as I can see, these defintions get around the two main objections that we have been considering, and they do so while preserving the intuition that atheism is an intellectual position or stance, a belief that we cannot ascribe to ALL BABIES.
Some who accept weak atheism believe the sentence “God exists” expresses a statement that is false, while others who accept weak atheism believe the sentence “God exists” does not express a coherent statement at all.  Both sorts of atheists are encompased by (DEF4A).
Some who accept strong atheism believe the sentence “One or more gods exist” expresses a coherent statement that is false, while others who accept strong atheism believe the sentence “One or more gods exist” does not express a coherent statement at all.
One final point, which is probably the most controversial point I have to make on this topic.  Although atheism is an intellectual position or stance, it is NOT a point of view.  At least, it is NOT a worldview, and it is NOT an ideology, and it is NOT a philosophy, and it is NOT a religion.  In short, atheism is the rejection of a specific religious belief or a religious “assertion”.  Weak atheism is basically the rejection of traditional western theism.  Strong atheism is basically the rejection of any sort of theism, including belief in one or more finite gods.
That is why the first seven statements at the beginning of this article are true.  Atheism is the rejection of a particular religious belief or religious “assertion”.  Atheism is NOT the assertion of a general point of view or philosophy or worldview.  Furthermore, atheists do not necessarily agree on WHY we ought to reject a particular religious belief or assertion.
Some atheists reject the assertion that “God exists” because they think it is FALSE.  Other atheists reject the assertion “God exists” because they think it is INCOHERENT.  The atheists who think “God exists” makes a FALSE statement have different reasons and arguments for thinking this statement is false.  So, atheists do not necessarily agree with each other about WHY we ought to reject the assertion that “God exists” or that “One or more gods exist”.
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Update (10/5/15):
Angra Mainyu suggested a counterexample to my proposed definition 4A:
c. What if Alice is silent on whether God exists on your definition, but she believes that “there is an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect being” is not true …? 
The classification you propose does not cover a case like that.
I also came up with a similar objection to 4A.  What about a person who does not understand English?  A person who speaks French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, or Japanese but does not understand English will in most cases NOT have an opinion about the truth or the coherence of the sentence “God exists.”  because he/she will not understand the meaning of this sentence.
I can get around my objection and perhaps Angra Mainyu’s objection as well by revising the proposed definition a bit:
5A. Person P accepts WEAK ATHEISM if and only if P believes that a sentence S does NOT express a true statement, and sentence S has the same meaning as the English sentence “God exists.”

There is a difficulty with this defintion, however. It appears to imply that the sentence “God exists” is a meaningful sentence, which begs an important question.

However, it does NOT assume that the sentence “God exists” expresses a coherent statement.  The sentence, “This is a four-sided triangle.” is a meaningful sentence, and it can be translated into other languages, but it is an incoherent sentence in that it contains a logical contradiction.  So, 5A leaves open the question as to whether the sentence “God exists” contains a logical contradiction, but does assume that this sentence has a meaning, at least enough meaning for it to be possible to translate the sentence into another language.

Personally, I don’t mind begging the question as to whether “God exists” is a meaningful sentence.  It seems obvious to me that it is a meaningful sentence, and one reason for thinking this is that it is obvious that this sentence can be translated into other languages.  How could a meaningless sentence be translated correctly into another language?  So, I’m OK with begging this particular question.

bookmark_borderWhy Be Skeptical?

According to my old American Heritage Dictionary (2nd College edition, 1982), a “skeptic” is a person “who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions.”  This seems to come close to what I have in mind when I support the view that students should be taught to be skeptical as a part of teaching students to become critical thinkers.
However, this definition is a bit too weak.  Someone who only questioned “assertions” or “conclusions” would be a half-assed quasi-skeptic, at best.
A basic aspect of critical thinking is learning to analyze thinking into its components.  There are at least eight different components of thinking (See The Analysis & Assessment of Thinking http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/the-analysis-amp-assessment-of-thinking/497 ):

  1. Purpose of the thinking.
  2. Questions we are trying to answer
  3. Information we need to answer the question.
  4. Interpretation and Inference or conclusions we are coming to.
  5. Concepts or key ideas we are using in our thinking.
  6. Assumptions or ideas we are taking for granted.
  7. Implications and Consequences of our thinking.
  8. Point of View we need to consider.

A critical thinker not only habitually doubts and questions conclusions (element number 4 above) but also habitually doubts and questions the purpose behind a bit of thinking, the question(s) driving a bit of thinking, the information used in a bit of thinking, the concepts used in a bit of thinking, the assumptions in a bit of thinking, the implications of a bit of thinking, and the point of view taken in a bit of thinking.
 Why be skeptical?
Nobody should be skeptical just because they are told by me or by a teacher or by a parent that they should be skeptical.   I believe there are good reasons why people should be skeptical, especially if they are interested in knowing and believing what is true and what is reasonable to believe:

  1. People are often dishonest, deceptive, or have been deceived by others.
  2. People are often irrational or motivationally biased in their thinking (e.g. egocentrism, sociocentrism, wishful thinking, superstition, and sexism).
  3. People have natural tendencies to think illogically, even when they manage to avoid being irrational or motivationally biased in their thinking (e.g. hasty generalization, post hoc fallacy, confirmation bias, false dilemma, errors based on the ‘representativeness heuristic’, belief bias (“When one’s evaluation of the logical strength of an argument is biased by their belief in the truth or falsity of the conclusion.” See article on Cognitive Bias: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias )
  4. Most of what people believe, they “learned” from others (parents, teachers, pastors, friends, books, magazines, television, movies, newspapers, blogs) who are usually not experts in, and not well-informed about, the topics that they were talking about. Misinformation is a widespread cultural phenomenon.
  5. The truth or the best solution to a problem is often difficult to figure out, even when everyone involved is thinking logically, rationally, and being honest (which is almost never the case).
  6. Skepticism works, especially in relation to trying to understand nature and how natural processes work.  Science works by challenging claims, assumptions, and theories, and by demanding carefully gathered facts and data to support claims, assumptions, hypotheses and theories, and by subjecting scientific arguments, hypotheses, experiments, and theories to skeptical peer review.

Do you agree that these are good reasons to be skeptical?
Please feel free to suggest  some other good reasons to add to my list (or to challenge one or more of these reasons).
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“It is now some years since I detected how many were the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had since constructed on this basis…” 
Rene Descartes,  Meditations on First Philosophy,  Meditation I.

bookmark_borderThis Knee Won’t Bow

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Philipians 2:9-11 (NIV)
I don’t think so. Not this knee. This knee will NOT be bowing at “the name of Jesus”.
My knee will remain straight and unbent, because I know and understand “the name of Jesus”. I know what this name means, and so I cannot in good conscience bow my knee to this name.
Jesus is Jehovah to me, and Jehovah is as good and as morally upright as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.  There ain’t no way this knee will bow to Jehovah.  So, since Jehovah is immoral and unjust, and since Jesus is Jehovah, this knee will not bow to Jesus.
One reason why Jesus is Jehovah to me, is that Jesus was named after a bloodthirsty and genocidal murderer: Joshua. Because the parents of the carpenter from Galilee named their son after this ‘hero’ of the Old Testament, I infer that his parents admired this genocidal murderer. Because Jesus never changed or renounced his own name, I infer that Jesus probably also admired this genocidal murderer, and clearly he did not publically condemn the bloody deeds of Joshua.
Joshua claimed to be following the orders of Jehovah in leading the army of Israel to slaughter thousands of innocent men, women, teenagers, young children, babies, pregnant women (including their fetuses), dogs, donkeys, and cattle.
The carpenter from Galilee was in fact, named Joshua, after the ‘great warrior’ of the Old Testament by that name.  Jehovah ordered the brutal slaughter of thousands of innocent men, women, teenagers, young children, babies, etc.  Joshua made sure that the army of Israel carried out this order.  The man we call ‘Jesus’ was actually named ‘Joshua’ after the bloodthirsty genocidal murderer Joshua. So, Jesus is Joshua to me, and Joshua is Jehovah to me, so Jesus is Jehovah to me.
The very name “Jesus” comes from the bloodiest warrior/hero of the Old Testament: Joshua. The name “Jesus” is the English transliteration of the the greek name “Iesous” but the name “Iesous” is translated as “Joshua” in other cases where the founder of Christianity is not who is being referenced (Luke 3:29; Acts 7:45; Heb. 4:8).
The Hebrew name for the warrior “Joshua” was “Yehoshua.” In the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, the Hebrew name “Yehoshua” (Joshua) was translated as “Iesous” which is the same name used of the son of Mary and Joseph in the Greek New Testament.
Jesus and his parents almost certainly spoke Aramaic rather than Greek, and the Aramaic form of the name of the Old Testament warrior Joshua was “Yeshua”, so Jesus was probably called “Yeshua” by friends and family members.  In other words, his actual name, in English, was: Joshua.
Read the book of Joshua, especially Chapters 6-12. It will probably take an hour or two to read those seven chapters. It is filled with slaughter and the glorification of genocidal violence. Here is just one example from Chapter 6:
Joshua said to the people “Shout! For the LORD has given you the city [Jericho]. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction. …”
[…]
So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall [around Jericho] fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.
[…]
They burned down the city, and everything in it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD. (Joshua 6: 16-17, 20-21, & 24)
This genocidal warrior is the person that Mary and Joseph honored by giving his name to their son, the founder of Christianity.
Some believe I will face damnation unless I bow my knee to “the name of Jesus”,  but I’ll be damned if I ever bow my knee to the name of Jesus, because I know that would mean bowing my knee to the name of the genocidal murderer Joshua, and to name of the genocidal god Jehovah who gave Joshua the order to spill the blood of innocent grandparents, women, teenagers, young children, babies, and fetuses.