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regarding theism // continuation - Lograh

Thursday, 07.Feb.2008

10:29 - regarding theism // continuation

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So, I was poking around yesterday and doing some thinking last night, which prompted my previous note.

See, I've heard a few different definitions for (a)theist and some disagreed subtly but critically with what I had thought it to mean. I thank you all for your comments on this as I was hoping to see if I've just all along held a distorted view of the word or if the resources I had available were just off-base or some mixture of both.

There are a few points to consider in the definition of an atheist. First off, it is clearly a construction based on another word, theist. The 'a' at the front is traditionally a negation, but what part of 'theist' is it we are negating? And more fundamentally than even that, we need to come to some understanding of just what a theist is. I had previously thought this was rather simply defined but have found that there could be some discrepancy there as well.

So, my previous understanding of 'theist' was that it was someone who had a religious belief structure that included some form of god or gods. I used to lump Deists in the 'theist' category, but the friendly modern dictionaries would seem to make a clear distinction between the two (this being apparently dated to 18th-19th century christians who didn't like sharing the title 'theist' with Deists), where a 'theist' believes not only in a god or gods, but also in that the god or gods are actively taking some part in the world (Deism being a belief in god/gods that have abandoned the world after setting it in motion). So, okay, that's a minor distinction I'll have to keep in mind but it doesn't really have much bearing on what I'm trying to tease apart here.

From what I've looked up, a theist can be either mono or poly, the number of personal/interacting gods doesn't seem to matter. There are some resources I've found that would claim a theist only believes in 'God', but those are the minority and were written in monotheistic cultures so this must be taken in to account. So, given that 'theist' is one who believes in a god or gods which are still active in the world, what part of that definition is the (a) negating? Is an 'atheist' simply one who lacks belief, or is it one who has a solid belief in the non-existence of a god or gods (negation of the activeness being covered by the exclusion of Deism as a theistic belief)? Also, given all this where does the term 'agnostic' fit in?

Ah, the joys of having a word which uses "not that other thing" as it's definition. Okay, so what would a 'gnostic' be? Some quick poking around yields that s/he would be a person believing in the possibility for supreme, esoteric knowledge (specifically, with reference to the early Christian sect by that name). This would imply 'agnostic' is simply one who either doesn't believe in that or denies the possibility. Most dictionaries would seem to agree that in this case, the 'a' is negating the possibility and not the belief, giving someone who has a firm belief in the impossibility of knowing.

This would tie in nicely with the same pattern being shown in a few dictionaries for atheist. That is, they generally seem to think that atheist is someone with a firm belief in the non-existence of a god or gods. While there are certainly plenty of people who would say that an 'atheist' is anyone who doesn't believe in *their* god, I think we can safely disregard them as being heavily biased (similarly for the dictionaries that lump polytheism in with the atheists). This is different from what I personally have previously held to be the definition of 'atheist'. I used to think that simply not holding a belief in god or gods was sufficient to be considered an atheist. I admitted that this lumped agnostics in under the atheist title, but I felt it was reasonable given my definition. It is interesting to me to find that I've been using the word somewhat inappropriately. All the more so to find that I'm not the only one.

See, where this really ties in with me is in Buddhism (precautionary note: all my mentions of Buddhist teachings are from my limited understanding of the specific school I am following. There are certainly other schools which believe differently. This does not mean they are 'wrong' or that I am 'wrong', we just believe differently). There are plenty of sources I've found, online and off, which say that Buddhism is an atheistic religion. However, if 'atheist' means "one who believes in the non-existence of a god or gods" then this would not be an entirely correct term to apply to the teachings of the Buddha. In truth, he often spoke of beings which existed on other realms from humans. There are many mentions to what would be loosely translated as "divine abodes", or where the perfect ones reside. The popular religion in India at the time of his awakening held there were two over-all powers that were personified in two beings, one 'good' and one 'bad' (much like the modern Abrahamic God / Devil dichotomy). The Buddha even refers to one (Mara) often in the scriptures, and the story of his enlightenment has him confronted by Mara right before he attains enlightenment (he is quoted as saying "Mara, I see you"). Is this mentioning of Mara simply cultural shorthand for something else or is it a reference to an actual sentient being? I don't know.

So, with so many mentions of higher powers, supreme beings, and devils, how is it that Buddhism is considered an atheistic religion? It all comes back to what part of 'theist' is the 'a' negating. The Buddha never denied the existence of a god or gods (least, not from what I've read so far). Neither did he promote them. Buddhism does not call for any kind of god worship, does not recognize any god as important, and does not really concern itself with any questions that would lead to discussions of gods (the question of the origin of the universe is nicely side-stepped since it is considered to not be relevant (though I've heard that a Buddhist creation myth does exist in some school)). To say buddhism is atheistic is to use the "negate the believe" definition of 'atheist' rather than the "negate the existence" definition.

But neither is Buddhism entirely an agnostic religion. Indeed, all of Buddhism points to awareness and insight as being part of the final goal! The Buddha was quite clear that true knowledge and understanding of reality is possible and to be desired. In fact, desire for this understanding is one of the few desires we are supposed to cultivate when earlier on in our practice (to help us resist the other desires that are so common). One of the most telling stories on this topic would be where the Buddha admits that his enlightenment gave him knowledge on many different things. He claimed to be fully aware of all manner of information, but he only taught a very small bit of it on purpose so that the importance of his teachings would not be diluted by any superfluous bits. This implies that he would definitely not deny that esoteric knowledge of the world is possible. To lump Buddhism in with the Gnostics, however, could be troublesome as well. Given that the term 'Gnostic' as we understand it relates to a specific sect of early Christianity. Perhaps some earlier definition of 'gnostic', one that predates the use of it by a Christian sect, would be appropriate for Buddhism, but not the modern understanding of the term.

So then, am I an atheist? It would seem not. I don't deny the existence of a god or gods, never really have. I just deny that they are in any way important to my life. I recently found one of those little "tell us about yourself" memes which I filled out quite a number of years ago. As usual, the "do you believe in God" question was there (one of the most biased/loaded/presumptuous and useless questions I've ever been asked). My answer then was similar to what it is now. I accept the existence of any of number of gods, but I don't worship any of them. Interestingly enough, when I left Christianity I never denied the existence of the Christian God, I simply denied that It had anything to do with my life.

Thus I stand corrected. All this time I would claim that I am an atheist, since I had thought 'atheist' meant "someone who does not hold strong belief in a god or gods" when it really means "someone who holds a strong belief in the non-existence of a god or gods". My apologies to those who may have cared if the label 'atheist' applied to me or not. It would seem I'm neither an atheist nor a theist, I simply don't care about the gods.

Again, this is all based simply on my limited understanding of the terms and concepts involved. I may be using the terms wrong or I may misunderstand the concepts. Please feel free to correct me or offer suggestions. I am, as usual, open to comments.

Comments:

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From:drkaos
Date:19:35 07.Feb.2008 (UTC)
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It is my belief that gods exist, but our concept of them as independent entities, separate from ourselves, is illusion, as all of this world is.

The gods are archetypes of human experience and existence manifested through the language of culture, thus creating a path for the unenlightened to relate to the divine. When one attains a higher level of enlightenment, one experiences all gods as one. In this way, when Siddhartha addressed Mara, he spoke to an archetype of all gods, that being, a Universal Truth presented in a living cultural metaphor. This makes his statement "Mara I see you" more relevant for he is stating that he is beholding a Truth.
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From:lograh
Date:1:07 08.Feb.2008 (UTC)
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A very interesting take on the situation. Then why did he choose the title of Mara to address the god-concept? Mara is the 'devil' of that belief system, the personification of worldly desires and temptations. According to the story, she assails him with all her might trying to keep him from achieving enlightenment and to challenge his right to enlightenment.

I suppose it makes sense if you presume that he is not intending to address the unified god-concept and is instead simply addressing the illusory truth underlying all temptations and desires. He was not, at this point, enlightened so it would stand to reason he did not yet fully comprehend the Universal Truth you speak of.

Or perhaps I misunderstand.
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From:drkaos
Date:5:50 08.Feb.2008 (UTC)
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I think you got it spot on. Mara is a living allegory. He confronted and saw through Mara, what she represents, her Truth. Worldly pleasure, death. The enlightened soul sees through the illusion of this world and through the illusion of death. He saw Mara for what she truly is, both divine and allegorical entity.



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From:abigor60
Date:21:46 07.Feb.2008 (UTC)
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From what I have observed, the definition of an atheist having a strong belief about the non-existence of god/gods has evolved from discussions between extremists from both the theist and atheist camps. The dialogs I have read and heard between such participants have used this definition to get around certain ideas that moderates present.

I have noticed that this idea comes up most often when religious fundamentalists need to discount atheism in a manner similar to how other religions are discounted by them. It appears to me that it is easier for some individuals to discuss another persons belief rather than a lack of belief.

But I have also seen people who strongly believe that god/gods do not exist use it to make their position seem more certain or advanced than other who consider themselves atheist.

I myself continue to use the definition of atheism that you currently use. Many atheist writers and philosophers also use that definition as well, so it would appear to be, at the very least, the more common usage of the word. Of course I am by no means an expert on the topic, and some of the subtleties of language may have gotten past my notice as a passive viewer of the debates.
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From:lograh
Date:1:16 08.Feb.2008 (UTC)
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to start, welcome to my little corner. most my LJ is rather meaningless, thoughtful posts like this are painfully (or blessedly, depending on your opinion I guess) rare.

Just to clarify, I'm not using the weak definition of atheist any more. Most sources I can find use the stronger definition (belief in non-existence), and since that seems to be the one I'm seeing more and more I'd rather avoid confusion by using the weaker definition (non-belief in existence). Also, given the OED tracks the strong definition to the mid 1500's this would signify it's not an entirely new thing. :)
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From:abigor60
Date:16:33 08.Feb.2008 (UTC)
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My experience has been quite the opposite, most of the people whose writings I have read and many atheist I have talked to have used the non-belief in existence version, but many of them do believe that a Christian version of God does not exist. They do not have any strong beliefs concerning a god-like being existing though.

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