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Meditation 885
What in God’s Name Are You Talking About?

by: Paul W. Sharkey

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I wonder why some people seem so intent on trying to stir up and keep alive so much controversy over what someone else calls themselves in describing their beliefs or non-beliefs about gods or religion?   As a philosopher I find myself wondering if it is just a matter of misunderstanding owing to the ambiguity of the terms involved.  As a former professor of psychiatry, I find myself wondering if it isn’t something else, especially when it seems to take the form of an obsession of insisting that someone accept and adopt a particular label and if they don’t, they are deemed wrong and to insist on continuing to argue about it.  The prejudices and obsessions born of religious ignorance are legion, including those of irreligion.

As Bertrand Russell observed, when it comes to the use of ordinary language, one can hear any number of extraordinary things said.1   Language is a very slippery thing yet seems for the most part to serve us well enough in the ordinary course of daily life.  It is only when we begin to demand precision and/or that someone else think and use it the same way we do that real trouble begins.   Clarity and precision are issues of logic, grammar and philosophy.  Beyond that, demanding that someone else think, believe and use language exactly as you do is a psychiatric one.2 

Language is a complex medium with many functions.  Confusing those functions can be as silly as confusing colors for odors or tastes for sounds.   It seems that nowhere are such confusions committed more often than in language about religions and religious beliefs.  Not only are terms such as ‘god,’ ‘theist,’ ‘atheist,’ and ‘agnostic’ slippery and ambiguous, so too even is the term ‘belief’ itself.    For example, there are at least two very different meanings of ‘belief’ that seem to be almost constantly confused in religious discourse.  One has been described as belief-that, the other as belief-in.  In philosophical terms, the first is said to be propositional in that it asserts the truth of something, while the second is fiduciary because it is an expression of commitment or trust; they are as different as blue is from stinky or sweet from loud.  The question: “Do you believe in god?” is therefore in its very inception as presumptuous as asking: “Have you stopped beating your wife?” from the introduction of the word ‘believe,’ before we even get to the word ‘god.’

If there is a more ambiguous word than ‘god,’ then I am not sure what it is.  So many things have been described as or asserted to be ‘god’ as to render the term descriptively meaningless.4   Not only that but like the word ‘believe,’ the term ‘god’ is also intrinsically ambiguous in that it has both descriptive and prescriptive aspects.   Whatever characteristics a thing might have descriptively, to be regarded by someone as a ‘god’ it must also be regarded by them as an object of honor, reverence, awe or worship.5   “Do you believe in the existence of the sun?” is a very different question than “Do you believe in the sun as a god?’6   So too for any other thing, person or being one might propose as a god. 

What this all means when it comes to specific gods, is that one person’s theist is another person’s atheist and just as the arguments between different kinds of theists can be philosophically absurd and psychiatrically symptomatic so too can those between different kinds of atheists.  To insist either that someone regard or not regard as a god the same thing you do can be equally reflective of a demanding, authoritarian and dictatorial personality. 7 

In debates both between and among theists and atheists the question of whether “X is god” is too often confused merely with whether “X exists.”   There are for example evidently some atheists who not only want to insist that “X” (“Y,” “Z”) is not a god but that nothing is -- that there is/are no gods of any kind, period!   To me, this seems particularly arrogant and dogmatically dictatorial.   Certainly a pantheist 8 would find it hard to believe that such an atheist could deny the existence of all that exists -- a manifest contradiction in-itself – or have the right to dictate whether the pantheist regard with honor, reverence, awe and worship everything that exists as god. 9  All that can be legitimately claimed in such a situation is that such an atheist does not regard it so while the pantheist does.  It would be as equally arrogant for either to demand that the other have the same attitude about it as one does oneself.   Too often such differences degenerate into what amounts to nothing more nor less than an infantile exercise in name-calling, or worse. 10

Long before I “became” an Apathetic Agnostic (long before the UCTAA existed) whenever someone would ask me if I believed in god, I would ask them to tell me what they meant by “god” and then maybe I would be able to tell them whether I believed in it or not.   All too often this became just an occasion for them to label me as an “atheist” on the spot because I was evidently supposed to know what they meant by ‘god’ without asking, even though I had long since realized my inabilities at theological mind-reading.   In effect, they were saying: “If you don’t believe in the same god the same way I do, then you are an atheist” despite the fact that most such “believers” had no real idea themselves of what it was they were claiming to believe in.   The theological position of “I have no idea what you are talking about when you talk about god” is known as ignosticism.11

Am I an atheist, agnostic, ignostic, or theist?  Well, it all depends on what you’re talking about. There certainly are things that others have claimed to believe in as deities that I do not.   To them, I am an atheist; in fact, in that regard I am a polyatheist. But humility prevents me from claiming to be an absolute, universal or dogmatic atheist because that would require my being propositionally omniscient and attitudinally omnipotent, neither of which I am.12   Why some atheists seem to want to insist that all agnostics are really just (cowardly) atheists is philosophically beyond me, although not psychiatrically.

Atheism and agnosticism are as different as first order and second order logic.13 As I have argued before, the one, agnosticism, is asserting something about knowledge (a matter of epistemology) while the other, atheism, is asserting something about existence (ontology).14  While knowledge of something may entail its existence, its existence does not entail knowledge of it.  I, along with Shakespeare, assume that “there are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy;”15 only a know-it-all could presume otherwise.  Hence, universal or dogmatic atheism is either epistemologically indefensible or attitudinally dictatorial (or both) and so on that score I must declare myself to be an agnostic. 

When I first learned of the UCTAA and its profession of non-faith: “I don’t know and I don’t care,” I was not only amused but also saw in it an explicit example of a statement reflecting and representing the intrinsically dual nature of religious belief. Again, to believe in (or not believe in) something as a god presupposes not just an ontological but also an attitudinal assertion and commitment. This profession of non-faith then separates apathetic agnostics from both dogmatic theists and dogmatic atheists alike, whose very dogmatism demands of them that they claim both to know and to care.   In this regard I found in apathetic agnosticism a philosophically psychological truism understood, promoted and practiced by the ancient Skeptics. Ancient skepticism was not just or even primarily motivated by merely epistemological concerns. It was promoted and practiced as an antidote to dogmatism for the sake of achieving mental tranquility – dogmatism of any kind being not only epistemologically indefensible but also symptomatic of a vexation of the soul.16   Like the Stoics and Epicureans of their time, the Skeptic’s main concern was ultimately with the health, peace and well being of their psyches (souls or minds) as it is at least claimed to be for every great religious tradition.   Apathetic agnosticism then is not just some “Johnny-come-lately”17 form of philosophically naïve weak-atheism, it is one of if not the most philosophically defensible positions about ‘god,’ of which I am aware.

So, and if anybody cares, my description of my own positions on these matters is that I am at once a poly (though not dogmatic) atheist, ignostic, apathetic agnostic who holds reason, truth, understanding, honesty and compassion to be the superior beings to which we are all held ultimately accountable.   Other than that, I have no idea in god’s name what you’re talking about.18



  1. Mr Strawson On Referring - Russell 1957
  2. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy; Borderline Personality Disorder
  3. Introduction to Logic
  4. List of thousands of dead gods ; Graveyard of the Gods Ministry
  5. Or unfortunately, fear.
  6. I could just as easily have used the word ‘son’ instead of ‘sun’ and the issue would be the same.  Moreover, if one really stops to think about it, there are perfectly good and understandable reasons why one might regard the sun with reverence and appreciation.  Without it, we wouldn’t be here.  Our very existence has from our very beginning and is now totally dependent on it and there is certainly more evidence for its existence than there is for “the son.”
  7. An important distinction closely related to the difference between beliefs-that and beliefs-in is differences of belief and differences of attitude.  Beliefs, in so far as they are propositional, are open to evidentiary examination (what would make them true or false) while differences of attitude are not, but are instead rather expressions of feelings or value commitments.    Hence, demanding that someone have the same attitude you do about something is not a matter of what is true or false but rather of insisting that they feel or hold the same values and commitments you do and is symptomatic of an authoritarian and dictatorial personality.
  8. Pantheism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  9. See: The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James
  10. Unfortunately, such emotionally based conflicts (see note 7) can all too often escalate into more than just name-calling but even all-out war.
  11. Ignosticism (Wikipedia)
  12. As long as its description was logically consistent, I would have to know everything there is to know about existence, from beginning to end, in order to universally deny the existence of anything, let alone a ‘god.’  I would also have to take the attitude that my – and only my – feelings and value commitments are legitimate and enforceable.  I fail in both cases!
  13. This can become very technical Second-order_logic (Wikipedia) but as simply as I can put it, when an universal atheist says “I don’t believe in god” he is saying “I believe there is no god” or “For any Universal atheist ‘Ux’, and for any god ‘g’, x is a Universal atheist if and only if x Believes not-g” or: {(x) (g) (Ux iff xB not-g}, while when an agnostic says “I don’t believe in god” he is saying “I have no beliefs about gods” or “For any Agnostic ‘Ay’ and for any god ‘g’ and for any belief ‘B’ y is an Agnostic if and only if  y has no Beliefs about g,  or: {(y) (g) (B) (Ay iff y not-Bg)}  The atheist denies something at the level of the individual or particular, the agnostic at the level of relations.  In short the levels of domain or universes of discourse between atheists and agnostics are entirely different and one cannot simply reduce agnosticism to some form of atheism.
  14. Meditation 645 Knowledge, Belief, Existence and Faith: The Theist, Atheist, and Agnostic
  15. Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, 159–167
  16. Sextus_Empiricus_-_Outlines_of_Pyrrhonism (The Inferno)
  17. Well, John Tyrrell may be the Patriarch of the UCTAA and in terms of human history, it may have come into being just lately, but that doesn’t make apathetic agnosticism a Johnny-come-lately philosophically naïve position.
  18. Actually, I could just have easily said: “WTF RU TLKNG ABT” in the terms of what seems to be quickly becoming the “ordinary language” or our time but I am of an earlier more quaint, if not more reverent, generation.