Paul Kurtz discusses the nomenclature of disbelief

August 26, 2012 | By | 15 Replies More

I’ve previously written about the works of Paul Kurtz.   I’ve long admired his Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles. I also agree with his concerns about “fundamentalist atheists.”  In fact, it was his position on “fundamentalist atheism” that likely gave rose to his contentious departure from the Center for Inquiry.

More recently, Kurtz has made the argument that atheists, agnostics and other disbelievers would be best served characterizing themselves as “skeptics” rather than as atheists, agnostics or non-believers.

I would like to introduce another term into the equation, a description of the religious “unbeliever” that is more appropriate. One may simply say, “I am a skeptic.” This is a classical philosophical position, yet I submit that it is still relevant today, for many people are deeply skeptical about religious claims. Skepticism is widely employed in the sciences. Skeptics doubt theories or hypotheses unless they are able to verify them on adequate evidential grounds. The same is true among skeptical inquirers into religion. The skeptic in religion is not dogmatic, nor does he or she reject religious claims a priori; here or she is simply unable to accept the case for God unless it is supported by adequate evidence.

Kurtz lists additional reasons for the use of the term “skeptic.”

[S]kepticism based on scientific inquiry leaves room for a naturalistic account of the universe. It can also recommend alternative secular and humanist forms of moral conduct. Accordingly, one can simply affirm, when asked if he or she believes in God, “No, I do not; I am a skeptic,” and one may add, “I believe in doing good!”

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Category: Religion, Science, scientific method, Skepticism

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (15)

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  1. Ben says:

    Well… this is not the first time that Kurtz, Vieth, et al. have been shortsighted about fundamentalist atheism. 🙂

    The problem is that (at least to my ears) the word “skeptic” is pejorative — even more so than the term “atheist”.

    While the term “atheism” is interpreted to mean many things depending on who is preaching/teaching/learning, we (the Atheists) have a vested interest in setting a good example for what being an “atheist” should stand for — curiosity, generosity, kindness, equality, knowledge-seeking, respect for science, doubting of dubious/unsupported claims.

    This is not your grandfather’s atheism. This is (new) atheism.

    In terms of usefulness, the term “skeptic” is on par with the term “bright”.

    If anyone asks, I am still an atheist.

    • Edgar Montrose says:

      OK, so what do you call someone who rejects the tenets of classical theism, but who does not formally “stand for” (or against) any of the things that you attribute to “the (new) atheism”?

      The fact that I reject something does not automatically mean that I adopt, endorse, or otherwise “stand for” its opposite, or anything else.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Ben: The problem (for me) is that “atheist” means one thing to me, yet another extremely different thing to most believers. To me, it simply means that I don’t believe in any sentient supernatural beings. To believers, it means that one lacks any moral foundation and that one lives for the moment. It further means, these days, that one is not patriotic.

      As much as I’d like to use the words that make sense to me and simultaneously make sense to others, we are living in a warped social and linguistic environment.

      As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, I don’t use the word “atheist” to describe myself, at least at first. Once I have a meaningful conversation going, I am more like to describe myself as an “atheist,” though not always. To me, establishing a meaningful relationship is usually far more important than having my way with words. My approach is based on the assumption that clearly communicate with using the word “atheist.” Perhaps we disagree about that.

      I do understand your approach. And if you describe yourself as an “atheist,” I won’t hold it against you.

  2. Ben says:

    Edgar… you seem *curious* … one of the tenets of the new atheism 😉

    • Edgar Montrose says:

      Ben,

      I am also honest, ethical, trustworthy, compassionate; I even follow Commandments 5-10 — all tenets of the “old theism”. Yet I am definitely not a theist.

      Your strict definition of “new athiesm” makes it more like a formal religion than a lack thereof. So perhaps I’ll start calling myself a “non-theist”.

    • Ben says:

      Edgar,

      I like “non-theist” more than “skeptic”.

      Indeed, “Non-theist” is probably a better description of you, me, and most New Atheists.

      My goal (in continuing to refer to myself as Atheist) is to gradually change peoples’ understanding of “atheism” to more closely resemble this non-theism.

    • Edgar Montrose says:

      “Indeed, “Non-theist” is probably a better description of you, me, and most New Atheists.”

      Ben, please stop trying to co-opt my system of (non-)beliefs. From your description, what you claim to be is NOT what I am, and your appropriation of my name for it won’t make me a part of it.

    • Ben says:

      Okay Edgar —

      Yes or no… are you an atheist?

      (FWIW, I think you might be a fundamentalist Edgarist)

    • Edgar Montrose says:

      Without an unambiguous definition, your question is unanswerable and meaningless.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Seems to me that attaching the word “fundamentalist” to the word “atheist” is just one more attempt to frame atheism as a religion, thereby reducing it to the same level of arbitrary nonsense that characterizes religion. It is a false comparison because atheism, unlike the world’s religions, does not demand belief in non-facts. Atheism says, “prove to me your god exists;” religion says, “prove to me my imaginary god does not exist.” The former is logically valid, the latter is not.

  4. Tim Hogan says:

    Grump, I think some might think a “fundamentalist atheist” is like REALLY harsh and committed and runs around ranting and raving about self deluded idiots believing in imaginary beings and screwing up the world and the universe while doing it. That would be as opposed to your average garden variety immoral nihilist.

    I don’t care whether you believe my God exists; it doesn’t appear on my radar. I’m going to commit the fallacy of composition and say that’s probably true of most theists. Believe or do not believe; I require mere tolerance and hope for more. For the most part, unless one atually let me know it, I could go years not knowing someone was an atheist (eh, Erich?). I honestly do not understand why it’s such a big deal.

    • Edgar Montrose says:

      Tim Hogan: “I don’t care whether you believe my God exists; it doesn’t appear on my radar. I’m going to commit the fallacy of composition and say that’s probably true of most theists.”

      Really, Tim? “I don’t discriminate against (fill in the blank), so I’m going to assume that nobody else does, either.”? I gave you more credit than that.

      Tim: “Believe or do not believe; I require mere tolerance and hope for more.”

      I’d say that non-theists demonstrate that kind of tolerance all the time. We tolerate de facto religious tests for public service (what do you suppose are the chances of an admitted non-believer being elected to office?); we tolerate huge tax breaks to religious entities; we tolerate prayer at public events and remain respectfully silent; and so on.

      Tim: “For the most part, unless one atually let me know it, I could go years not knowing someone was an atheist (eh, Erich?). I honestly do not understand why it’s such a big deal.”

      Same could be said for someone who was gay, left-handed, a Cubs fan, etc. But just because you can’t see the “big deal” doesn’t mean that life is the same bed of roses for them as it is for you.

      Want a taste of the “big deal”? Pretend for a month that you are a non-theist. You don’t have to volunteer the information. But if asked to join in prayer, politely refuse. Respectfully decline invitations to go to church. If asked directly, say that you are a non-believer.

      Note carefully how differently you are treated, particularly by family and friends.

  5. Ben says:

    Tim,

    Did you see us (democrats) trying to figure out whether to keep “god” in the democratic platform? The religious wording was removed — then (unfortunately) was put back in after a controversial vote. The atheists tried yelling “nay”, but for the best of the democratic party (we hope) those in power decided ahead of time to put god back in.

    I think it is important (to those of us who don’t believe in any magical beings) NOT be lumped in with the rest — because it feels like our wishes are being ignored.

    Bear Witness to the Farce of Godspeak:

    http://www.sodahead.com/united-states/democrats-restore-god-but-insincerely/question-3154817/?page=3

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Ben:

    “My goal (in continuing to refer to myself as Atheist) is to gradually change peoples’ understanding of “atheism” to more closely resemble this non-theism.”

    How’s that project going?

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