Are you a Theist, A-theist or Anti-theist?

I have a friend named Don who is a want-to-be philosopher. He argues many points of atheism and religion, believes that his power of deduction is correct and will reveal the truth. In reality, he sometimes just powers his way through a discussion leaving no room for rebuttals or decent. As he is pushed closer to the corner, he gets louder and more verbose. We all have Dons in our lives. Yet sometimes they come up with something worth thinking about to a deeper level than the unilateral discussion would allow. Don is a diamond in the rough.

This time Don was discussing language and definitions, something somewhat up my own field of communication which affords me some expertise. Not much, but enough to make a dent. I have also taught college math and statistics, so the philosophy of mathematics comes with a bit more understanding. Not much, but a bit.

The basic theory Don was attempting to illuminate is really quite simple on the surface.  The antithesis of Theist is not Atheist, but Anti-Theist. It took a bit to understand this was his destination, but once there I put some thought of the concept. Don’s problem is with the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of atheist: A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.

Don’s argument is that the OED is using two definitions separated by the word “or.” The first is one who simply disbelieves in a god or gods and the second is one who believes there is no god or gods. He believes the latter represents anti-theism where the former represents atheism and anti-theism then becomes the antithesis of theism. When making a mathematical model, Don tends place atheism in the center of the graph believing that there is equidistance between theism and atheism as there is between atheism and anti-theism. (Fig 1)  I believe that the leap between “I do not believe” to “There is no” is not so great and would be easier understood if we place the equilibrium towards the negative response.

   Theism                                                          A-theism                                              Anti-Theism
                                                                                        (Fig. 1)
    Theism                                                                            I’m Not Sure  A-theism  Anti-Theism
                         (Positive)                                                                           (0)       (Negative)
                                                                                       (Fig. 2)                               

In fact, it may be clearer if you could imagine the anti-theist position folding into the atheist views. The premise of “proof”, the “burden,” still falls on the positive side of the equation, which asserts that there is a God or gods based on verifiable facts and observations; beyond a single source – the Bible.

In this exercise, the connection between atheist and anti-theist is not absolute for one can be an atheist whose mind can be changed if there is proper proof of the existence of God. (I am referring here to the god of Abraham, which is also the Christian and Muslim god.) However, this argument also has the atheist rethinking his or her position as to the degree of disbelief. If one takes the position of “I don’t believe in your God or gods,” then one may be convinced if evidence is presented and, by Don’s reasoning, claim the title of atheist. If one takes that short leap to say “I do not believe in the existence of your God or gods” then one should properly claim the title anti-atheist.

Many atheists, myself included, are not anti-religion; therefore not anti-theists. We believe to live and let live, but if you wish to argue your religion with us, we are perfectly willing to join the conversation. In fact, atheists (and I assume anti-theists) are usually better versed in the Bible then many Christians. Some may call this position agnosticism, but this would be another misunderstanding of the language.

Again from the O.E.D. an Agnostic is “a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.” This is the zero point on Fig. 2 and different from the atheist’s “I do not believe” or the anti-theist’s “There is no…”

I believe there is a short leap from agnostic to atheist as there is from atheist to anti-theist. The graph must be skewed to the positive for two reasons. The first is that there are physically more people who believe in a deity or deities then not. If one would plot the theists to anti-theists by the sheer numbers, then the skew would be quite apparent. The second reason is a bit more convoluted for there is no immediate statistical work to prove the position. Questioning one’s faith may begin with disbelieving in the inerrant nature of the Scriptures. Once a person begins to question their faith, they are more likely to move towards the theist to deist and eventually to agnostic. From agnostic to atheist is a short jump and a much easier leap then from theist to deist. It also allows the person to return to a theist position without a feeling of remorse. Unless the religion of the person really pissed him off, I do not believe that one would move towards the anti-theist position with haste.

The entire argument rests solely on the notion that there is a difference between atheist and anti-theist and identifying oneself as one or the other would provide a better platform from which to discuss the importance and existence of God or gods.

About David Rosman

David is the winner of the Missouri Press Foundation's "Best Columnist" in 2013 (First Place) and 2014 (Second Place), the 2016 Harold Riback Award for excellence in writing, and the winner of the 2007 Interactive Media Award for excellence in editing.
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