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The meanings of words vary over time and from speaker to speaker. Some words and phrases used on this site which may be misunderstood or used differently elsewhere are defined here. Click on the word below for a definition:
An agnostic does not know whether God exists. Agnosticism refers more to humanity's ability to know things than to whether God exists. For a detailed discussion of agnosticism, see this Wikipedia article.
Recognition that the universe we live in is subject to unchangeable laws of physics and that nothing exists which is superior to those laws. An atheist is a person who accepts those facts.
An alternative definition of atheism is lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.
Atheist / Freethinker / Humanist / Rationalist / Secular / What?
Everyone has their own idiolect - their own way of speaking and vocabulary that differs from everyone else. Mostly these overlap - there's little debate about words such as baby, chair or internet - but, especially in the realm of ideas, there can be differences and contradiction and not everyone is happy with the words atheism and atheist. Here's a quick guide to alternative words.
Atheism refers to the non-existence of god(s) and the acceptance of the universe as wholly determined by natural law. By itself, atheism has no moral implications, but most atheists are humanists (see below).
Freethinking is a 19th-century term referring to people whose thinking and philosophy was free of religious ideas. Most, but not all, freethinkers were atheists; some could be described as Deists (see below).
Humanism refers to an outlook on life, including a moral stance, that is human-, not God-centred. Most, but not all humanists are atheists.
Rationalism is a view of the world based on reason, not superstition.
Secularism has two meanings: (a) rejecting religion in one's personal life or (b) believing that religion has no part in public life. Secularists may be atheists or believers.
There is considerable overlap between these words and, with the exception of the potentially confusing secularism, they are often used interchangeably. Other words are also used, such as bright. This website generally uses (a) atheism as its baseline for the non-existence of god(s), (b) rationalism for its use of reason to respond to the world around us, (c) humanism as its moral outlook. It sees (d) freethinking as old-fashioned, (e) secular as confusing and (f) bright as distracting and irrelevant.
belief / believers
On Gwbaa, belief refers to acceptance of the idea that there is a god or gods. Believers are people who hold that belief.
Atheism is not a belief
• to believe something means to assume that something is true without the evidence to
support it. (For example, although police have not found the body, they believe the
missing person is dead.)
• Although there is no evidence for God, many people assume - they believe - that he
exists. (If you think there is evidence for God, click here.)
• Atheism recognises that there is no evidence for God. It is absence of belief.
• Religion = belief
• Atheism = observation
CE (Common Era)
The secular dating system that replaces AD (Anno Domini = "in the Year of the Lord"). 1 CE = AD1; 2008 CE = AD 2008. BCE (Before Common Era) is equivalent to BC (Before Christ).
The idea that those in official authority or with hidden power are conspiring to hide a vast, nefarious plan from the rest of the world.
Conspiracy theories include:
• aliens from other worlds regularly visit earth
• the US government carried out the 9 / 11 terrorist attacks
• Queen Elizabeth and other world leaders are really lizards from another planet
Conspiracy theories provide evidence to support their case, although that evidence falls apart under close examination (see All the evidence). Conspiracy theories also fail the Occam's Razor test - they contradict basic common sense and create more problems than they solve.
While most people who examine conspiracy theories quickly see that they are false, a minority hold onto these ideas tenaciously. Such irrationality verges on paranoia and / or reflects a psychological need to feel special ("I am one of a small select band which knows The Truth").
The belief that the universe was created by God as described in the Bible. Creationism rejects the extensive evidence underlying evolution. (Some Muslims also accept Creationism, although they may reject some parts of the Bible.) Intelligent Design is a variant of Creationism
Q: Is Creationism science?
A: No, because it does not meet the criteria that define science. See here.
For a further critique of creationism, read here.
The idea that the universe was created by a god who has no other involvement in it. The Deist God does not perform miracles, does not intervene in human affairs, does not expect worship and does not judge humanity after death. Deists are people who believe in this version of God.
Although many American Christians claim that their country was founded as a Christian state, many, if not most, of the Founding Fathers, were Deists.
An abstract term for God.
An official teaching of a religion. For example, Roman Catholic doctrine includes the assertion that the Jesus' mother lived her life free of sin. Protestant doctrine on Mary is limited to stating that she was a virgin when she conceived the son of God. Similar to dogma - see below
A belief or code of beliefs or collection of doctrines that defines a religion. The Roman Catholic church sees dogma as infallible (never wrong) and unchangeable, while doctrine may change over time.
The process by which life has developed over billennia from single-celled organisms into the complex life-forms we see today.
Although some elements of evolution are not clearly understood, the general principle - that heritable mutation within supportive environments leads to more complex biological systems - is accepted by all serious scientists.
For a beginner's guide to evolution, click here.
On Gwbaa "faith" refers to belief in one or more gods; people who believe in one or more gods have faith.
Many other writers and publications use "faith" to mean religion; that meaning of the word is not used on Gwbaa.
A conscious being that is not constrained by the physical laws of the universe.
On Gwbaa "God" (with a capital) refers to the idea that there is only one such being (monotheism) while god(s), without a capital, refers to belief systems with more than one such being (polytheism).
Is God immortal, all-powerful, all-knowing? That depends on your faith. To investigate God further, click here
A variation of Creationism that asserts that some phenomena in nature cannot be the result of evolution and can only be explained by a hypothetical designer.
Intelligent Design claims it is a scientific approach to the origin of species and deliberately does not refer to God or the Bible - although its central premise is that a supernatural designer - God - exists.
ID has only one argument: some phenomena, such as the human eye or the bacterium flagellum, are irreducibly complex: their complexity means that they could not have evolved ; they could have been created "ready-made" by a designer.
However, science has proved that all examples put forward by proponents of Intelligent Design are not irreducibly complex; the human eye, blood's ability to clot etc could have - and almost certainly did - evolve. Most proponents of ID refuse to accept such proof - which calls into question their science and / or integrity.
For further discussion of Intelligent Design, click here.
The Son of God in Christianity. Christ (="the arisen") is widely believed to have lived in the early years of the Common Era and to have been crucified in 33 CE. However, there is no contemporary record of his existence and the evidence available - including evidence from the New Testament - suggests that he never existed. For a discussion of that evidence, click here.
(Relating to God) can be experienced.
A knowable god can be experienced directly. Most Christians believe that God is knowable.
An unknowable god cannot be experienced directly. Some Christians, most Jews and most Muslims believe that God is unknowable. Hindus believe that Brahman, the ultimate manifestation of God is unknowable but lesser gods, who manifest some aspects of Brahman, are knowable.
The question arises: if God is unknowable, how do we know he exists? For more discussion on that, read here.
Purpose or intention.
Both purpose and intention imply the existence of conscious being that determines them. Thus the phrase "the meaning of life" suggests both
a. life has a purpose, and
b. something conscious - God, ourselves, something else - created that purpose.
Meaning is a human concept that only applies to human actions. Natural phenomena - the sea, plants, insects, animals etc - have no meaning.
For more discussion of "The Meaning of Life", click here.
moral / morality
Defining right / good and wrong / bad / evil and acting in accordance with what is right / good.
Morality is a human concept that only applies to human actions. Natural phenomena - the sea, plants, insects, animals etc - have no morality.
For more discussion of morality, including the idea that our moral values come from God, see Defining morality
Natural laws, also known as physical laws, are scientific laws such as "water boils at 100 degrees celsius at sea level", "e=mc2", "water is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atoms" etc.
Natural laws are constants in the universe which have been deduced from repeated observation and experimentation and occur in every circumstance in which the predetermined conditions have been met.
Natural laws exist without human observation. Our understanding of natural laws changes as our ability to observe and interpret different phenomena improves. Disagreements between scientists and others over certain natural laws, such as the conditions which led to the origin of the universe, do not mean that those laws are flawed or some phenomena in the universe did or do not obey natural law; they only mean that our understanding of those natural laws is still uncertain.
Preconditions / suppositions / propositions for a debate. The premises are the basic information which everyone discussing the issue agrees.
rationales & reasons
Rationales are false reasons.
John, an alcoholic, tells himself that he is going into a bar because it is raining.
John's rationale for going into the bar is because it is raining.
John's reason for going into the bar is because he needs a drink.
When you have decided what the answer is and look for arguments to support that answer, you are rationalising. (Most believers decide that God exists and then look for arguments to prove that they are right. They are rationalising.)
When you do not know the answer, but you follow the facts and logic and see where they lead you, you are reasoning. (Most atheists start off either with an open mind about God or actually believe in him, but facts and logic lead them to conclude that he does not exist. They are reasoning.)
We frequently use rationales to hide truths from ourselves and from others. We are usually unaware that we are rationalising.
Children are not taught the difference between rationalisation and reasoning - which explains why many adults have difficulty understanding the difference between the two.
On Gwbaa, "a religion" (with article) refers to a shared belief in God as described by specific scriptures and celebrated in group ceremonies. Roman Catholicism is a religion; Islam is a religion; Buddhism is a religion; etc
Most religions involve some or all of the following elements:
• belief in the existence of one or more supernatural beings
• stories with miraculous elements
• rituals, prayers and sacrifices
• a moral code
• experience of the supernatural
• a sense of community
The relative importance given to each of these elements varies from religion to religion and from individual to individual.
On Gwbaa "religion" (no article) refers to all religions and all belief in God or gods.
Science is not knowledge; it is a system of acquiring knowledge. The components of the system are:
a. observation of a phenomenon
b. creation of a hypothesis - an explanation for the phenomenon which predicts
the same result in every identical circumstance
c. testing of the hypothesis
if the hypothesis fails (the result is not as predicted in every identical circumstance)
create a new hypothesis
d. if the hypothesis makes accurate predictions accept the hypothesis as fact.
For example, observe rainfall. Create a hypothesis to explain it - rain is caused by a supernatural being. Test the hypothesis - does prayer to the supernatural being invariably lead to rainfall? If the hypothesis fails (no, prayer does not invariably lead to rainfall), try another hypothesis - rain is caused by a buildup of moisture in clouds. Test that hypothesis - measure air pressure, humidity, windspeed etc. If the hypothesis makes accurate predictions, accept it as fact - rain is caused by a buildup of moisture in clouds.
For the relationship between facts, knowledge and science, read here.
On Gwbaa "scripture(s)" refers to writing which people believe represent the word or will of God. They include the Bible and Koran.
"why" has two different meanings:
(i) what caused the action? (cause and effect)
(ii) what is / was the intended result of the action? (intention)
The answer to (i) begins "because"; the answer to (ii) begins "to". Compare the two answers to the question "Why did she go the store?"
(i) because her mother told her to.
(ii) to buy candy.
Now consider the question "why does it rain?" and two possible answers:
(i) because moisture builds up in the clouds.
(ii) to water the plants.
The first answer makes sense, because it is a cause and effect. The second answer is false, because it suggest intention and intention implies a consciousness. The clouds, water and rain are not conscious. Rain does not fall because it wants to water plants. The fact that plants grow is incidental to the falling of rain.
Beware of "why" questions when discussing nature and God. They can be misleading; by suggesting intention and consciousness where there is none, they can needlessly suggest the existence of God.
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If God existed, he would...
admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create
recognize that eternity is meaningless
deny both heaven and hell
disown all men and women who speak in his name
denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"
help the human race to thrive without him
If God existed, he would be an atheist.
What is the difference between science and faith?
science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything
faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing
Which do you trust?
"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"
Check the answer