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Thank you! I posted that meme and got the 100% remark as well as definitions from Websters dictionary. Now I have posted a link to this post. Again, THANK YOU!!!

Brent Rasmussen

Beautifully written, Greta!


I don't know why, if you are not sure, you must take the side of there not being a God. And I am slightly offended by the T-shirt logo telling me that there is probably no God, so I should go ahead and enjoy my life. I do enjoy my life very much even while believing in God! Thank you very much....


My first thought was, "Of course they think that. I think I know what christianity is better than many christians do." But this is ridiculous. Identity is experienced subjectively and the subject is the authority.

I may argue that I can better understand their books because of my lack of preconceptions. Or that I have a better perspective on the societal consequences of their beliefs.

If they just argue about the meaning of a prefix, they are welcome to such mental masturbation. I hope they understand semantics is likely off-topic and (to extend the metaphor) they choose to do it privately and quietly.

Another example would be to say Christian's believe in the bible, ergo, they must follow everything that is in the bible, ergo, if your child disrespects you, you are honour bound it kill them. After all, it says it three times in both the new and old testament.


Let's say, hypothetically, that the people who say "Atheism means 100%" are right. Say it could be proven beyond doubt that the word atheism does and necessarily HAS to mean 100% certainty that there is no God. That all of the people who self-identified as atheists while actually thinking of it in different terms were wrong to use the word that way. It still wouldn't matter.

The fact of the matter would still be that even if self-proclaimed atheists were using the word "wrong", it would STILL make the most sense for the people who have the definition "right" to assume that atheists were using the word wrong. That is to say, it would make the most sense for them to assume that when we self-identify as "atheist" it DOESN'T mean 100% certainty. Because we are what we are whether we call ourselves atheists or nontheists or tooth faeries or whatever. A person who thinks that God is an unlikely hypothesis by any other name is STILL a person who thinks that God is an unlikely hypothesis, even if they're using the name wrong.

Even if you could prove that atheism does and necessarily has to mean "100% certainty that there is no God", that wouldn't magically turn all atheists into people who are 100% certain there is no God. Whether the moniker is right or wrong, we are still, by and large, people who think of God as an unlikely hypothesis. The name is completely irrelevant to that except insomuch as it's a useful shorthand for a set of ideas. The set of ideas, by that name, or any other name, are still going to be the same. Which means that even if they're right about the word meaning, people who assume that I "know 100%" that there is no God are making a *false* assumption about me and anyone else who thinks of God in "unlikely hypothesis" terms.

In short, even if they're right about the word, they're still going to make wrong assumptions if they interpret the word the "right" way instead of the way people are actually using it.

Dave Haaz-Baroque

"I don't know why, if you are not sure, you must take the side of there not being a God."

Because if a claim seems particularly unlikely, and there's insufficient evidence to back it, the default conclusion should be that the claim isn't true. I'm sure you'll get plenty of similes in this vein from other commenters, but it's the equivalent of asking, "If you can't say with 100% certainty that fairies don't exist anywhere in the universe, why must you take the side of there being no fairies?"

Another thing to consider, Chia, which I see mentioned far less often, is that belief doesn't have a magical on / off switch. I can't "choose" to believe that there is a god if I don't see evidence to convince me. Evidence either convinces you, or it doesn't. In that light you could say that I didn't 'take the side that there is no God', that's simply the side that the evidence takes me.

"And I am slightly offended by the T-shirt logo telling me that there is probably no God, so I should go ahead and enjoy my life."

Don't know what to tell you there, Chi. The shirt's message is really pretty inoffensive; I certainly don't see it as being any more offensive than a shirt which says "Smile! Jesus Loves You!" (Why, I don't believe in Jesus, and I had plenty of reasons to smile anyway! Hurumph!").

Forgive me if I'm wrong, but your offense, at both the atheist standpoint and the T-shirt statement, seems to stem from the fact that atheists feel the need to mention their lack of belief in god at all. I certainly hope I'm misreading you, although if I'm not, our charming host has a plethora of posts about that sort of 'shut up, that's why' reaction.


This is a wonderful piece.
I have to confess that I enjoy playing Devil's advocate and so even tho' I am an atheist in the broadest sense of the word, I have argued with other atheists about what the word means and it drives them nuts. But the conversation is useful in developing our identity and countering such arguments. What you have written here really lays it all out so clearly that I'm going to have to share this...

Greta Christina
I don't know why, if you are not sure, you must take the side of there not being a God.

Dave pretty well covered this, but because I have a constitutional inability to keep my mouth shut...

There is almost nothing in this world that I can be 100% sure of. I can't be 100% sure that the earth goes around the sun. But all the available evidence suggests that it does, and the best arguments suggest that it does... so unless I see some better evidence or better arguments, I'm going to assume that it does.

And ditto with God. All the available evidence I've seen (or at least, all the good evidence, all the evidence that doesn't just amount to "Somebody else said it" or "I feel it in my heart) points to there being no God. All the best arguments I've seen point to there being no God. Therefore, I'm going to take the side that there is no God, unless I see some better evidence or arguments.

And if you enjoy your life while believing in God, good for you. Many people don't. Many people's experience of God is largely one of fear. I'm not sure why you'd be offended by an ad for atheism that doesn't happen to address your particular concerns, any more than you'd be offended by an ad for, say, Coca-Cola that doesn't address your particular concerns. "How dare they say Coke adds life! I have plenty of life without Coke, thank you very much!"


Nice post. In science, we look for evidence. I don't see evidence, I don't believe. Show me a better experiment, I might change my mind. Until then, nope, no reason to believe a God exists.

I really confuse people by calling myself a Zen Atheist. I am at peace with my lack of faith.


I have been annoyed by that on many occasions. I say "theists don't get to define what my atheism is; how would you like it if I said to you 'No, you're wrong about what it means to believe in god - it means *this* instead!'?".

A few then point to some (usually very old) dictionary. I point out that the meanings in the old dictionaries are written almost entirely by theists, and sourced from the writings of theists, often religious ones with an axe to grind, and long dead theists also don't get to define my atheism for me.


This is the number one thing that bugs the crap out of me more than anything else. Yes, way more than the Hitler/Stalin comparisons. Usually, you get this from sanctimonious agnostics, who are quite proud of the fact that they will never, ever, ever in a million billion years ever have an opinion. The way you describe agnostics wanting to distance themselves from us angry atheists doesn't go far enough. Now, far be it from me to generalize about agnostics, but the ones I've come across are the so full of themselves and their absolute mastery of the art of having no opinion, that I'd much rather deal with a fundamentalist Christian.


I 100% disbelieve that there can exist a square circle. It's logically impossible.

I also 100% disbelieve that the god depicted in the Christian bible exists as described. It's logically impossible.

Therefore, with regard to that Christian god, I am 100% atheist, not even doubtful for a second. (Some would further qualify that as "strict" atheism).

With regard to the possibility that some entity that I or the rest of the world might label "god" upon discovery, I just don't know. It could happen, but there's no good evidence for it now, and if I don't have a good reason to believe something, I just don't. That makes me an atheist as well.

So, I can be 100% atheist in one regard, and an unconvinced but open to data atheist in another. But I'm still an atheist. Why? Because at the moment, at least one of the above descriptions of my atheism is true: 100% convinced the Christian god doesn't exist, or open to evidence of "some" entity I might call "god" existing. Having both of those characteristics isn't "necessary" to be an atheist, but having either is "sufficient."

Atheists shouldn't squabble about which one of those is "real" atheism. That's such a sad waste of energy for absolutely no good reason.

Robin Z

@Procrustes | September 24, 2009 at 06:03 PM:

I 100% disbelieve that there can exist a square circle. It's logically impossible.

Actually, that's not true. The definition of a circle is "all the points a fixed distance from the center." The definition of a square is "a polygon with four equal sides and four equal angles." If you take a chessboard and measure distance by the number of king-moves, all circles by that definition are squares.

"Logical impossibility" is really hard to prove. The Christian God may well be impossible, but it suffices for me that He is empirically disproven.

(Incidentally, Ms. Christina, you have inspired a blog post. Thank you.)

Robin Z

(P.S. If you're on Livejournal, you may prefer my blog post on Livejournal - it's identical.)

Todd (Different one)

In my experience, efrique has it at least half right -- a reliance on a simplified dictionary definition. The other half is argument from derivation.

A maybe-interesting parallel is 'homophobe', where some people insist on dictionary and (supposed) derivation-based definitions to 'prove' that they aren't homophobes, since they aren't scared of gay people. Of course, there's one large difference there -- as far as I know, there isn't really a community of people who self-identify as homophobes.

Chia | September 24, 2009 at 02:13 PM:

I don't know why, if you are not sure, you must take the side of there not being a God.

There is a teapot, in orbit around the Sun, sharing Earth's orbit, but on the side of the Sun directly opposite the Earth. It can't be detected by telescopes on or near Earth, because the Sun is in the way. And it's too small to be detected by other probes. So you can't be sure that the teapot doesn't exist. Should you believe in the teapot?

I have, in my closet, and invisible pink unicorn. You can't see it, because it's invisible. You can't hear it, because it's silent. You can't feel it, because it's too quick. Do you believe in the unicorn?

There is a famous scientist who claims to have a Dragon in his garage. When people want to look at it, they're told the Dragon is invisible. When they want to hear it, they're told the Dragon is magically silent. And so forth. Do you believe in the Dragon?

One of the fundamental building blocks of logic is that one must not accept beliefs for which there is no evidence. This is usually referred to as "Occam's razor" ( actually it goes back at least as far as Archimedes). Without Occam's razor, you have no choice but to accept the teapot, the invisible pink unicorn, the dragon in the garage, the Tooth Fairy, Mother Goose, Odin, Zeus, Santa Claus, Leprechauns, Bigfoot, and, in fact, and endless list of entities for which there is no evidence.

Acceptance of this endless list of myriad entities complicates any thinking you might do. If you can't find your car keys, you must consider the possibility that a mischievous brownie moved them, the possibility that a hungry invisible dragon ate them, the possibility that a leprechaun turned them into green cheese, and many other possibilities besides. These notions clutter up your thinking and make it harder to figure out what on Earth happened to your keys. With Occam's razor, you can reject all these strange possibilities. You can turn to simple explanations, such as the possibility that your keys fell out of your pocket while you were sitting on the couch reading a book.

God is like the entities I have listed above. God is often (but not always) so nebulously defined that it cannot be disproved. Yet there is no evidence for God. Therefor, to enable progress in our thinking about the universe, we use Occam's razor to slice him away.

Stellar Ash

I once gave a christian someone something like this statement in the course of a drawn-out discussion:

I am an Atheist and a person of science.

And as such, since one cannot prove a negative, I cannot say for 100%, that god does not exist.

However, I was damn sure that if a god existed, it was not the christian god.

They weren't real happy about that.

On the plus side, at least for me, I got them to admit that their version of the bible was written by committee.


Why do you think straight people don't tell gay people what "gay" means? We get that crap all the damn time, even from sympathetic straight people; gay people do the same to bisexual people. Maybe humans just like their own opinions too much.


Not to be hair-splitting, mean, or derivative,
"Atheist" must be defined as a privative.
Faith may be measured by it has got,
But lack thereof, only by what it has not.
"Not Red" may be green, may be yellow, or blue--
"Not Christian" is atheist, Muslim, or Jew...
"Not Muslim" could still have a god that they love,
But "Atheist" only, is "none of the above".
"Agnostic" applies to the things one may know,
But "Atheist" deals with belief... and so...
A lack of belief is one characteristic
That must not be used as descriptive statistic
To say what I am; only what I am not--
About my beliefs... why, it doesn't tell squat.


Excellent post.

I really have nothing to add to that, but this post was too good not to comment on.

Thank you.

Greta Christina

Eep! I've inspired a Cuttlefish poem! I'm all a-twitter with fangirl glee. This beats debating with Victor Stenger any day of the week.


I want to add something to what Dave and Greta wrote. We should distinguish technical and pragmatic reasoning. To understand what I mean, consider the Christian and Deist notions of god and assume they cannot be ruled out by square-circle arguments. Pragmatically, we can rule out both, if only to get-on with our lives. Technically, we can rule out only one of them. We can argue against the Christian god like so: if X, then Y; not-Y; therefore, not-X. We can't do that with the Deist god. With technical reasoning, we can rule out only one, but we can rule out both from a pragmatic standpoint, if only to get-on with our lives.

With that in mind, this could be the big difference between Strong and Weak Atheists. Whenever I (a Weak Atheist) challenge a Strong Atheist, they almost always come to agree with my position. Then, I was always left dumbfounded when they turned-around and embraced Strong Atheism again. Perhaps they are not contradicting themselves, but happen to embrace pragmatic reasoning to a greater extent than I do. (Unfortunately, they seem to embrace pragmatic reasoning to such an extent that they often confuse it with technical reasoning. By using both without distinction, they appear unreasonable to many people, and the credibility of Weak Atheism is damaged, if only because it is guilty by association.)

I also want to add something to what Todd said. All agnostics admit to not knowing the origin of the universe and they all allow for the possibility of a conscious creator. There are two kinds of agnostics though. One kind takes their knowledge of the universe and make inferences from it, which has the result of ruling out many of the god-hypotheses and other mystical notions like free-will, for example. The other kind is non-committal and wishy-washy. Those are the agnostics that Todd had in mind. I am an agnostic of the first kind and I find the second kind of agnostic just as annoying as Todd does. They try to claim the lustre of reasonableness for themselves even though they do not deserve it.

One more thing, about what Stellar said. For each positive claim that is proved, at least one negative claim is proved too. To prove, "this particular cubic inch of space has pure tea in it" (a positive claim) is to also prove "this particular cubic inch of space does not have oil in it" (a negative claim). To say negatives can't be proved is to say that nothing can be proved at all. Obviously, you don't mean that. You mean something quite different, so you should articulate that different thing. Notice that whenever you feel compelled to tell someone that negatives can't be proved, you are always responding to someone who makes a positive claim whose truth or falsity is indistinguishable. Tell them that its truth or falsity is indistinguishable and, on that basis, they have no grounds to affirm its truth and are justified in not accepting that positive claim as true.


I pretty much agree with this post, but I think there's another reason that people do this, besides the ones that you named.

I've noticed that most people don't really understand how language is used.

An awful lot of people seem to think that every word has a fixed meaning, laid out by higher powers (dictionary writers? English teachers?), and that no meaning other than that one, and no change in meaning, can be correct. Many of these people are also hopelessly pedantic, and will correct those who they think are "misusing" words, because, well, they can't let somebody be wrong!

Your "gay" analogy probably works for most or all of your readers, but I'm not sure it would work for the sort of people I'm talking about, because many of them would in fact happily tell someone that they are actually bisexual and not gay. Not because they intended malice, but because of pedanticism combined with lack of understanding of the complexity of language.


I agree with you LJ. But then there's another sort of people as well, at the other extreme. The ones who seem to think that words can mean pretty much anything, and who seem to change the meanings of words as they see fit. You can never really prove them wrong, because as soon as you do, they did, in fact, mean something completely else... they claim. Language is flexible but only to a certain extent.

Robin Z

@Jesse | September 25, 2009 at 06:34 AM: ShorDurPerSav, mate - that was marvelously stated.

Greta Christina

A few people have said, and I concur: Some specific gods are logically impossible, and those we can discard with 100% certainty (or as close to 100% certainty as we can have in discarding any logical impossibility). But many hypothetical gods aren't logically impossible: they're just wildly improbable. And I still call myself an atheist about those gods.

Jesse, what's usually meant by "you can't prove a negative' isn't "this particular cubic inch of space does not have oil in it." It's "there is no oil, anywhere." When people say that you can't prove a negative, they mean that, except for logical contradictions (like the square circle), it's difficult to impossible to prove that something doesn't exist at all, anywhere in the universe.

And if people keep moving the goalposts, a la the dragon in Carl Sagan's garage -- "But it's invisible! But it's inaudible! But it's non-corporeal!" -- in such a way that the usual standards of proof are removed, then proving that something doesn't exist becomes even more unattainable.

I do agree with your point about technical versus pragmatic reasoning. The problem, I think, is that many believers want to take the technical possibility that some sort of God might exist, and expand that into (a) a pragmatic belief that their particular God probably does exist, and (b) the notion that the pragmatic non-belief of most atheists makes us opinionated jerks.

I have a button, purchased at a science-fiction convention, which says:

Among animals, it's Eat Or Be Eaten.
Among People, it's Define Or Be Defined.


(The "button" post above is mine. John B Hodges)

Re. definitions: I like the argument made in the American Atheist magazine some years ago: Atheism is about what you (don't) believe, agnosticism is about what you (don't) claim to know. Accordingly there are four categories: gnostic theists, agnostic theists, gnostic atheists, and agnostic atheists. The most reasonable position is to say that we are Gnostic Atheists with respect to all testable gods and Agnostic Atheists with respect to all untestable gods.



I agree.

I was just showing that "you cannot prove a negative" is not technically true and not what people truly mean. (They do mean what you say they mean.) They should express their thoughts differently, if only to avoid misleading people and to not give the more sophisticated theists the opportunity to dispute your wording and score points with the audience.

People who move the goal posts are generally easy to deal with. You may not change their mind, but you can easily score points with the audience by showing them how unreasonable your opponent is. If they have no evidence for their position and they keep moving the goal posts to make it harder to disprove them, all you need to do is point out that you are not under an obligation to disprove the existence of god or fairies or what-have-you, only discredit their position, and that they are making it more and more difficult for themselves to substantiate what they are saying, and thus making their ever-increasing unreasonableness apparent.


JohnH is right, the "agnostic means not to be sure about the existence of good" definition is wrong:

Agnosticism is the philosophical view that the truth value of certain claims — particularly metaphysical claims regarding theology, afterlife or the existence of deities, spiritual beings, or even ultimate reality — are unknown or, in some forms of agnosticism, unknowable. It is not a religious declaration in itself, and an agnostic may also be a theist or an atheist.



I've been posting your Atheist Meme on Twitter, and in the #atheist hashtag there has been some debate about the definitions of atheism and agnosticism. As usual, we've gotten a bunch of "atheism means you strongly believe in no god, therefore, atheism is a religion" arguments.

And that just pisses me off!

Enough so that I wrote my own LJ post about the definitions. It's simplistic and it's leaving out some of the history, like I didn't mention Huxley, and the reason is, much like school, you start out with the basics and you get to philosophy and complicated details as you get older.

So, when trying to introduce the concept to people who are totally clueless, it's a simple, basic explanation.

I like the catchphrases "calling atheism a religion is like saying not collecting stamps is a hobby" and "calling atheism a religion is like saying bald is a hair color". I think those are pretty effective analogies.


Joel Monka

I understand your point completely, Greta. The reason I do is that in such debates, when I say I believe in a diety, I am never asked which one. Aristotle said that all debates should begin with a definition of terms.

John Swindle

Wow -- Cuttlefish posts here! Excellent reason to come by more often.


Mindful of the multiple interpretations of the word "atheist" I usually qualify it: "Atheism, by which I mean lack of belief in a god or gods...." If there was another word more closely defined by that phrase, I'd use it.

To me it's straightforward. "Theism" is belief in the existence of one or more deities; "atheism" is the opposite: lack of such belief. If the redefiners want to quantify the certainty or otherwise of belief and lack of belief we can start making comparisons with fairy-belief, flat-earth-belief etc.

Chick Fil-Atheism

Sigh...I really need to be mindful of my mental health and stop getting sucked into arguments with religious people. I've just been in a debate on facebook with a guy who doesn't understand what the harm is in teaching religion in public schools. He said that it would be fine to teach Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, etc. but wouldn't answer my question about Wicca, as in, "So you'd make room for that and be okay with your child learning witchcraft, too?" I informed him that there are more atheists than Jews in the United States, so if religion should be taught, then the absence of faith deserves equal time. No answer to that, either. He didn't understand my assertion that my child should have the right to freedom FROM religion. He claimed that the absence of religious education in school was, by default, pushing atheism onto kids. I replied that that was inaccurate, as I am not arguing that children should be taught that there is NO God, either. I dunno--to me, religion is like smoking. Smoke in your house. Smoke outside, in your car, whatever, but don't pollute MY air. Unfortunately, that's an analogy that they'd turn on me, right? They believe that God has to be in the air for it to be clean.

Sorry I went a little off-topic here. I really appreciate the presence of non-believers wherever I can find them. It's like a cool lake to jump into on a boiling hot day.

supra for boy

i come here first time. Thank you for sharing your admin would get ready a severely beneficial write-up I congratulate.s I very agree with your views from here.

A Facebook User

Or, as I recently put it, Atheists Don't Like Baseball:


I completley disagree with you on this one. I reject this notion that, being something allows me to define what that something is.

A snail cannot define itself as a lion. If it has lionish qualities, then it isn't a snail, and a new name is required.

Essentially you are asking that language be subject to perversion by anyone who doesn't happen to like it.

By the way, I don't see you as an atheist, I see you as an agnostic atheist, which is not the same thing.

Now, let's take a look at what I just wrote - I described two words - atheist, and agnostic atheist. These are terms that have accepted definitions. Now, if you say, "but this doesn't mean this, this means that" where will it end? Maybe the words I am using in this comment are all up for grabs too?

I strongly prefer to keep words the way they are, and if something doesn't quite fit then let's get a new word for that.


Furthermore, what if there are 'atheists' that say to YOU, "No, atheists just plain do not believe in God period, if you think that it is even possible then you are not an atheist"? How do you handle them? Whose definition wins? The two of you are essentially holding mutually exclusive points of view, yet which of you gets the right to define themselves?

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