Even-handedness

Rigorous even-handedness seems to me a central skill involved in practising the Middle Way, and I’ve been thinking about it especially after recent discussions on the site with Richard Flanagan and Mark Vernon. I thought I’d share a bit more about what I think even-handedness means, how we might practise it and why it is important.

The central metaphor involved in the Middle Way is balance – trying not to lean too far either to one side or to the other, because both sides offer rigidities of view that stop us making provisional judgments that address the changing conditions around us. Of course, the way we each find a point of balance as individuals depends on our background, and our approximation to balance may seem like a series of corrective lurches from one side to the other. But we can only maintain even corrective lurches if we have a clear idea of what we are avoiding. If we’re avoiding both positive and negative metaphysical claims, we need a clear view of each so that we can spot them before we hit them. Even a drunken steersman with a rather blurry idea of the strait ahead of him still has to have a sense of both sets of rocks to be avoided.Blondin_sculpture_Ladywood

That lays some conceptual demands on us, as the way people are accustomed to talk about views does not necessarily make it very clear what the positive and negative metaphysical poles are. We’re probably all fairly clear that the Taliban on one side, or an addict trying to fill a meaningless life with drugs, on the other, represent extremes of both belief and practice to be avoided. However, in between such obvious extremes there are lot of positions that lay claim to the middle ground. The sheer amount of jostling for the middle ground itself provides evidence that in some sense people intuit the Middle Way to be right. Labels that we may have thought were extreme may be re-presented as the Middle Way, or at least a middle way. To some extent they often are, but to some extent also mingled with metaphysical commitments.

The first name that springs to mind to illustrate this is Tony Blair with his ‘Third Way’. The Third Way was quite a specific policy, and was about combining a goal of increasing social equality with the pragmatic effectiveness of market economics. Blair’s Third Way was a re-labelling of a once Socialist British Labour Party, a re-orientation of its economic policy. Although he made little impact on rising levels of inequality in Britain, Blair did manage to change the agenda. Since then British politicians (in marked contrast to the polarisation of the US) have been jostling for the centre ground, all claiming to offer the middle way between extremes. Many of them may be sincere about this. But I’ve yet to find a politician that I found convincingly rigorous, consistent or even-handed in developing a genuinely Middle Way position. The middle was appropriated mainly because Blair showed how politically advantageous it was, not because it was perceived as the morally objective option. It was a partial achievement, but Blair’s Third Way has also become a bit of a hazard for a practitioner of the Middle Way – a narrow interpretation of it that might be mistaken for the whole thing.

As with the Third Way, there are a number of other positions that I continue to argue are at least partially inspired by metaphysical assumptions, but that various people have suggested (some on this website) are compatible with the Middle Way. These include Scientific Naturalism (particularly of the ‘methodological’ variety), various types of liberal Christianity, Stoicism, Utilitarianism, Kant, Natural Law, Deep Ecology, the ‘Radical Middle Way’ in Islam, Social Democracy, Conservatism, Atheism, Humanism, and of course, Buddhism. Now, I don’t want to be mistaken for a purist simply rejecting all these positions because they’re not perfectly right. The Middle Way Society isn’t perfectly right either. All these positions address some conditions to some extent, whilst neglecting others. But we will only be in a position to assess them critically if we maintain some conceptual distinctions between the Middle Way and any one of them, not allowing any of them to appropriate the Middle Way as we understand it. I would then expect lots of quite reasonable disagreement on the extent to which any of these ideologies fall short of the Middle Way, but you won’t be able to assess that extent unless you have an idea of the Middle Way that is distinct from any of them, to start with.

That’s where the practice of even-handedness comes in. I’d suggest the following method, whenever you’re in doubt as to whether a particular belief is part of, or is compatible with the Middle Way:

  • Identify the extremes of view in the area you’re thinking about – i.e. a pair of polarised beliefs that lie beyond experience. See About Metaphysics page for examples.
  • Clarify the vocabulary, checking that you’re not just using the same word for a position that might or might not be interpreted metaphysically. If necessary, stipulate two meanings for yourself, e.g. atheism 1 & atheism 2 (this might be a temporary measure just to avoid confusion).
  • Reflect on the need to avoid both extremes. Most likely your background will steer you in one direction or the other. But both extremes offer equal dangers.
  • Imagine that you come from the opposite background (e.g. Conservative instead of left-wing, or theist instead of atheist) and see if what you thought was the Middle Way still looks like that from the other angle.
  • Try to define the Middle Way for yourself in rigorous avoidance of both the extremes.
  • Think about the practical implications of the Middle Way in this area.

I hope this kind of method might help you to avoid confusions merely arising from terminology. I have developed my own uses of terminology in Middle Way Philosophy in accordance with this method, but I think it’s the method that determines the use of terminology that is more important than the terminology itself. If you can use this method, I hope I will accept your corrections if you can show me that I haven’t used it rigorously myself.

I think this is important for individual practice of the Middle Way, but it’s also vital for the society whilst it is still in its early phase of development. It would be very easy for the Middle Way as a concept to be appropriated and eclipsed by one of the ‘false friends’ mentioned above. The consequences of this would be disastrous, because the whole purpose and central originality of the society would disappear. It would also cease to have the reconciliatory role it could potentially have in entrenched conflicts, because it would start to be seen as a cover for ‘the other side’. Theists would assume it was really atheistic, scientistic types that it was a cover for woolly new-ageism, Conservatives that it was really Socialist, etc. Even-handedness is just a vital part of what I conceive the society to be about, but it would be all too easy to let it slip.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

17 thoughts on “Even-handedness

  1. Hi Robert,

    I will respond here, rather than to your reply to my Podcast, as both posts are related.

    I understand, and welcome the need for even handedness but I fear that it is not always applied fairly or consistently on this site. Of course such a claim requires evidence, which I will provide here.

    Firstly, you have said to me that:

    ‘If you allow ‘atheism’ to mean a position that is actually agnostic, what are you going to call a position that involves denial of God’s existence’?

    That’s fair, up to a point, but my concern here is that the same treatment is not afforded to the words ‘God’ and ‘Christianity’. On God you say:

    ‘If “God” on the other hand, means the widest possible moral or spiritual justification, “God” is the Middle Way itself’ and ‘An alternative way of understanding the meaning of God non-dogmatically is to regard God as an archetype’.

    and on Christianity you say:

    ‘There are thus various aspects of Christianity that can be interpreted in a way that is in accordance with the Middle Way […] It is possible to be a Christian follower of the Middle Way’.

    It is clear that with these terms you are willing admit that there are a wide range of uses and interpretations and that some of these are compatible with the Middle Way. But I could just as easily ask:

    ‘If we use the word God as a name for ultimate conditions as they impact on our experience, then what word can we use for a supreme and concious deity’?

    and therefore suggest that the use of God as an archetype is not helpful (which I am not necessarily doing).

    With atheism you are much less forgiving:

    ‘Atheism as the denial of God’s existence, then, cannot be justified. It needs to be replaced by hard agnosticism’ and ‘one could not follow the Middle Way and be an atheist – in the sense of someone who asserts opposing negative metaphysical beliefs denying God’s existence’.

    Given that I, and every atheist that I have come across – in person or in text – does not deny the existence of God’s, would it not be even handed to say that it is possible to be an atheist follower of the Middle Way?

    I would extend the same argument the Humanists as well. You have indicated above that Humanism is not compatible with the Middle Way and yet I can’t see anything in modern Humanism that is a dogmatic extreme. The same cannot be said for Christ – practically every utterance that is attributed to him is steeped in dogma and metaphysics, yet it is possible to be a Christian follower of the Middle Way, why not the same logic applied to atheism or humanism.

    Christianity, atheism, the Middle Way, Humanism, Buddhism. These are not fixed concepts and they are liable to change so isn’t it therefore possible that the Middle Way is – or potentially could be – compatible with them all, given the right circumstances?

    Why is this important? I think that this is important because the Middle Way Society is at risk of becoming an isolated and seemingly impenetrable clique. An example might be a humanist, who is also an atheist (the two are not interchangeable). He or she visits the site and see’s much that applies to them and can see the benefit of adopting a Middle Way approach. They then read the material that relates to humanism and/or atheism and discovers that Humanism is not compatible with the Middle Way and that the term atheist must be dropped for hard agnosticism. With out first being part of the society, and understanding it in more detail, they may just turn away and not come back. This would at best be a shame, and at worst could affect the future of the society.

    If there is common ground between an understanding of God, of Christianity and the Middle Way then why can there not (explicitly) be between Humanism and Atheism – the former of which, I believe, has much in common.

    I am not advocating that the society becomes atheist, and I think that hard agnostic is a useful term (although I might say that I am a soft atheist) :), but it is not widely known or understood. Most of the people that I know do not even know what agnostic means, but they do know that atheist means that one does not have a belief in God. The American Atheist website says:

    ‘Atheism is usually defined incorrectly as a belief system. Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in god’.

    I think that this is by far the most common use of the word, and somebody that considers themselves an atheist in this way should feel welcome to join with their atheism intact.

    Rich

  2. I think this a very important debate. Obviously, if by atheism people mean there is no such thing as God then this is indeed runs counter to the Middle Way. However If atheism is taken to mean not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods but simply a lack of belief in God then it seems to me quite clear there is no conflict here. I think Rich is making a good point that there is a danger of putting all atheists into one bag and excluding or putting off many especially of the second category (who Rich suggests are in the majority), who are essentially by Robert’s definition hard agnostics anyway. Now I imagine Robert would suggest that this is confusing because atheism has two definitions, but agnosticism has two definitions too. A question to be asked here is which one is less confusing.

  3. Hi Rich,
    Thanks for your comment. I did set myself up for challenge, and I’m glad we’re having this discussion.

    However, I think we need to make a distinction between traditions and metaphysical positions. Christianity, Humanism, Buddhism etc are traditions. You have misinterpreted me when you suggest that I have said these traditions are not compatible with the Middle Way: actually what I said about them, above, was “All these positions address some conditions to some extent, whilst neglecting others”. What I want to avoid is a wholesale assumption that any of these positions *are* the Middle Way, or that the Middle Way should be understood in their terms. I want the Middle Way to be understood independently of them, so that we can then engage with them even-handedly using it.

    Both traditions and positions also need to be distinguished from archetypes. I have suggested that God can be understood in archetypal terms, but also made it clear that I reject belief in God as a metaphysical belief. The distinction between meaning and belief here is central, and it’s vital not to assume that meaning necessarily involves belief. We find characters in novels very meaningful without believing in them. By “an alternative way of understanding God non-dogmatically” above, I was referring to the meaning of God, not belief in God.

    So, I don’t think you are making a fair comparison when you match my points about atheism with my points about Christianity and God. The opposite of atheism is theism, i.e. belief in God. Neither finding God meaningful, nor being involved in Christianity as a tradition, necessarily involves theism.

    As for the use of the term ‘atheism’, well, I can only come back to the method that I’m suggesting should be the basis of deciding our use of terms, and repeat the question that you said you thought was fair up to a point, but did not offer any answer to, i.e. ‘If you allow ‘atheism’ to mean a position that is actually agnostic, what are you going to call a position that involves denial of God’s existence’? If you can offer me an answer to that question, we have a chance of developing a use of terms that allows us to articulate both the metaphysical extremes and the Middle Way in relation to *belief* in God.

    I’d also like to ask you another question, similar to one I posed in the blog above. If we were to routinely use ‘atheism’ to mean a mere lack of belief in God, how would we reassure theistic readers approaching this site, and prevent them immediately jumping to the conclusion that this was an atheist organisation? People are very ready to assume the extremes, whereas it takes a lot of patient work to establish the middle ground as an available option.

  4. Hi Robert, Rich and Barry,
    I was among the majority Rich mentioned, until I read Robert’s article on atheism and realised that metaphysical belief is to be avoided because it is beyond our ken, our experience. Never the less it was the secular approach of the MWS that first attracted me to the site and I am pleased I found it.
    I for one would not want the MWS to become a clique, it has so much to offer, I don’t think it will become so, but it depends I suppose on getting the interested public to have an in -depth look at the site, feel welcome and find something in it that whets the appetite to learn more.
    Your concerns are understandable Robert, people may/do misunderstand your interpretation of the Middle Way on this subject. This debate is important, as Barry says, I expect it will continue for some time between those who have a better grip on the differences than I, I just hope that it doesn’t cause serious rifts and undo all the good work that has been achieved so far.

  5. A further point about traditions. I think traditions are rather like people. They are complex and have a variety of motives that jog along together, as well as potentially changing in radical ways. So you can no more say that a tradition like Christianity is inherently metaphysical, or incompatible with the Middle Way, than you can say that a person is so. Atheism, on the other hand, is not primarily a tradition: it’s a label for a belief. You could argue that it has some elements of a tradition, and that people can be atheist in different ways, but it hasn’t produced groups, organisations, or developing culture over time in anything like the way Christianity has. So I think it’s fair just to use atheism as a label for a belief position in the same way that theism is.

  6. Robert: I hope you won’t mind the following tangent re: your parenthetical “polarisation of the US” comment:

    In my experience, there’s plenty of evidence to support that premise (for example, based on reports like this one, which also notes that online surveys appear to exaggerate the trend, relative to face-to-face surveys). But there’s also evidence to support the premise that Americans’ views are closer on most issues – including supposedly controversial ones like the ideal distribution of wealth – than such reporting suggests. And, when it comes to specific policies, support or opposition seems to hinge more on the policy’s source and on how it is framed, rather than on the specific practical implications of the policy itself, as demonstrated by certain Washington policy wonks.

    That said, I believe that something is lost in this polarization narrative, an absence that risks creating a false equivalence between opposing sides in the debate. So, in order to mitigate that risk, consider these questions:

    What if one side in a political debate happens to be more closely aligned with the Middle Way than the other? Would we still characterize both sides as “extremes”? After all, the linear metaphor still works, yet I suspect that you would agree that both sides are not of “equal danger.”

    In the context of current-day American politics, suppose I were to argue that the Democratic Party embodies Middle Way philosophy (or something akin to it, like American pragmatism) to a greater extent than does the Republican Party. Would you dismiss me on the basis of a partisan bias?

    Perhaps not, given your analogy to Tony Blair, to whom Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have served as American counterparts (e.g. see here as an example).

    In any case, I’m well aware of the dualism assumed in this framing of the situation, but the political reality is that (for various reasons, both structural and historical) independent and “third-party” candidates are at a great disadvantage in nearly all of American elections above the local/municipal level. So, for us pragmatists, the decision of whom to vote for usually boils down to either the Democrat or the Republican. Were I more of an extremist (as in: an ideological purist), I might be tempted to toss my vote away on a candidate with little or no chance of winning, simply because I find his/her views more agreeable, if not to abstain from voting entirely – in either case, allowing others to make the decision of who shall govern (e.g. according to the mechanics of plurality “winner-takes-all” voting systems, among other conditions).

    In other words, because I choose to be effective in how I participate in election campaigns, my behavior may seem “polarized” from the outside or from above (say, from the objective stance assumed by political scientists and pollsters), given my record of political support for Democratic candidates. Yet, from where I stand (for example, among lefty idealists, who insist that most Democrats are too conservative to stomach voting for), it actually seems quite moderate and mainstream.

  7. Hi Jason,
    Thanks for this comment. You’re right to challenge my brief over-simplification of the US political landscape. If the polarisation has been overstated, then that’s good news.

    The underlying point I’d want to make to try to clarify the Middle Way in relation to the US political party options is the same as the one I made to Rich above – that the Middle Way lies between metaphysical positions, not between complex traditions that may or may not follow such metaphysical positions at all closely. Traditions will contain various pragmatic elements that have developed to address various conditions, but metaphysical polarisations (e.g. “the market is always good (or bad)”, “social equality is the ultimate value that overrides all others (or a non-value to be avoided”) have a function within those larger traditions of holding the group together without integrating it, not of addressing any other condition.

    So I think you could vote Democrat or Republican, or for that matter be more deeply involved in either of those political traditions, for entirely pragmatic reasons that might be entirely compatible with the Middle Way, as long as you didn’t subscribe to the metaphysical beliefs that might be associated with those parties. The even-handedness that I’m suggesting we need to cultivate lies between those metaphysical beliefs, and does not necessarily mean you remain neutral between traditions. That would hardly be possible, given that we are all involved in various traditions from our background, culture, work etc. I think we need to remain even-handed between metaphysical positions, but work with whatever traditions we come across.

    In the case of the Democrats, I can certainly see the case for choosing to work with them in matters of effective political action in the US. I try to maintain even-handedness in terms of dogmatic ideological positions, but I certainly wouldn’t pretend to be neutral in terms of either US or UK politics. I have a strong positive response to Obama, and have often dreamed about him, where he appears in the role of a teacher or wise advisor. I have to work to avoid idealising him, even though I disapprove of some of his actions (e.g. drone killings), and remain strongly of the opinion that his administration has addressed conditions much better than his Republican opponents would likely have done if they had gained the presidency. Crucial to the Middle Way is not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    In relation to UK politics I don’t have anywhere near such strong feelings, because although there are plenty of policies of the current government that I disapprove of, this would be likely with most governments. Although I don’t think Cameron is wonderful, he’s really not that bad, particular compared to previous Conservative administrations like the Thatcher government, which arrived in a time of much greater political polarisation in the UK (and made it worse). Pragmatically I’d just much rather be in this situation where the worst likely government is not too bad, than in the US situation where you still might conceivably get someone like Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich in office in the future. Tony Blair did achieve something worthwhile, whatever his faults. I’m much more concerned about the long-term loss of power of governments to unaccountable global corporations, which threatens to make this degree of political progress irrelevant in the longer term.

    So, I think there is a Middle Way politics, and such a politics does not preclude commitment – indeed may require it to address urgent conditions. Even-handedness remains an important part of such a politics though. If you get tired of pragmatic politicians, try comparing them to dogmatic ideological ones!

    1. Hi, thank you all for a very interesting debate. Before Obama became president I read his books, as a result I admire his vision. I remember one reporter at the time he was elected, saying that in her opinion he could never live up to the high expectations his voters hoped for during his life at the White House as many constraints would be placed on him by his opponents.
      I jumped for joy when his health plans were passed but I don’t know how that has worked out, perhaps Jason you could enlighten me? Was a middle way found?
      George Lakoff has much to say on the Democrat/Republican divide, recently he was in London to lecture and I read a report of the talk on this subject in the Guardian.

      1. Norma: The Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”) hit a milestone this week, having nearly reached its goal of enrolling 7 million people in private health insurance, despite some early hiccups and unwavering political opposition.

        Whether or not that’s a good thing, of course, depends on one’s point-of-view, and since I make no secret of my sympathy for the goal of achieving universal health coverage, I’d say that’s a step in the right direction, even though (like most American progressives) I would have preferred a single-payer “Medicare for all” scheme, like that of Canada, or at least a “public option” to compete with the private insurance plans offered on the market exchanges.

        The NHS model, in which a large proportion of healthcare providers are employed by a government agency, barely entered the debate. Although that solution would likely have been the most cost-efficient, and at least as gap-free as a single-payer scheme, I suppose that it was deemed too radical (read: “socialist”) a departure from the market-based status quo.

        By the way, I recall that Lakoff criticized the “affordability” part of the ACA, because it activates the marketplace frame, which naturally entails that we think of healthcare as more like a commodity (as a stereotypical conservative would have it) than as a basic human right (as a stereotypical progressive would have it). I trust that he’s right about that, but then I also share Robert’s concern about “not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good”, which is largely why I’ve nonetheless found myself acting in defense of the ACA, both online and over the dinner table.

  8. Hi all,

    My thanks to Jason too for bringing politics into the discussion. I personally worry about politics that is (apparently) non-ideological and pragmatic and I am cynical about the jostling for the supposed centre ground but I am very interested in how the Middle Way can be applied to politics.

    I haven’t got a lot of time this weekend, but I will reply to Roberts points on atheism (I think there is a way forward) and also give a more detailed reply to the politics discussion soon.

    Rich

    1. Rich: Just to clear up my part in the discussion, I tend to think of a pragmatic approach to politics as being just as value-laden as any other – including those approaches that I characterized as “ideologically purist.” The main difference between the pragmatist and the purist, as I use those terms here, boils down to their respective tolerances for what Robert calls “incrementality.”

      In other words, a pragmatist would demonstrate a greater tolerance for gradual change than the purist, so long as s/he perceives that change as progress towards a shared goal, like universal healthcare coverage.

      The ACA (“Obamacare”) reform that Norma asked me about is a good concrete example, where we find critics on both ends of the traditional left-right political spectrum. Although the leftist arguments resonate much more strongly with me than the rightist ones, they lose me if and when I perceive the critic as taking a purist, “Medicare-for-all-or-nothing” stance.

      Does that make me a “centrist”? In a very limited sense, I suppose so, but only according to our flawed, one-dimensional linear model of political opinion (one that cognitive scientist George Lakoff rejects, by the way), which grossly oversimplifies a situation in which individuals who largely share moral values nonetheless find themselves working in different camps, applying different strategies towards shared goals, based on somewhat different models of reality.

  9. Hi Robert

    With regard to the two questions you posed to Rich:

    ‘If you allow ‘atheism’ to mean a position that is actually agnostic, what are you going to call a position that involves denial of God’s existence’?

    ‘If we were to routinely use ‘atheism’ to mean a mere lack of belief in God, how would we reassure theistic readers approaching this site, and prevent them immediately jumping to the conclusion that this was an atheist organisation’?

    I think there are no satisfactory answers to these questions, and because of this, the use of the term agnostic for the intermediate sceptical position makes sense.

    The page “Middle Way for Atheists” appears to imply that atheists are mainly deniers, which Rich suggests is not the case. Therefore, I think it would be helpful on that page to at least allude to the above rationale and acknowledge that there are two main types of atheists , people who deny the existence of God(s) and people who simply hold no (metaphysical) beliefs about God(s), with the latter holding a position that has much in common with hard agnosticism. As long as this is made clear, i think this could help in avoiding putting people off who see themselves as atheists in this way.

    I also have one query regarding the following comment you made about Mark Vernon’s podcast on agnosticism:

    ‘I resonate particularly with his statement that to be a theist is to be an agnostic’

    If Rich can’t say “to be an atheist is to be an agnostic”, how is your comment to Mark Vernon even handed?

    1. You’ve caught me being lax in my use of language there, Barry. What I should have said I resonated with was that to be part of the theistic (or Christian) tradition was to be agnostic. I think that if one takes the meaning of God in experience, without metaphysical assumptions, then one should also recognise one has no knowledge of God, which implies theistic agnosticism of the kind used by the mystics. But if theism means metaphysical belief in God then there is a contradiction in the way I put it. Seeing the degree of confusion I’ve sown here, I’ll try to be more careful in future.

      I’ll also have a look at editing the ‘Middle Way for Atheists’ page as you suggest.

      1. Hi Robert,

        You are quite right to suggest that I provide an alternative for the term ‘atheist’ as it is used be the Middle Way Philosophy. First of all, I do not think that the Middle Way should declare itself as atheist – even thought it might be able to by one definition – because agnostic is actually more accurate. I also admire your attempt at drawing a clear line between between the words agnostic and atheist. Because there is some overlap and because most atheists are probably also agnostic, there is much confusion and quite often people might not even know which they are. However, it is this clear distinction of definitions that I feel causes an potential issue where atheists, who would be described here as hard agnostic, might feel unnecessarily alienated and unwelcome.

        I think that an alteration of the ‘Middle Way for Atheists’ page is a good idea – I think that this is where the potential problem arises. You asked me:

        ‘If we were to routinely use ‘atheism’ to mean a mere lack of belief in God, how would we reassure theistic readers approaching this site, and prevent them immediately jumping to the conclusion that this was an atheist organisation’?

        This is a fair question but I think the website already answers it. There is whole page devoted to God and another for Christians, where it is very clear that the Middle Way is not inherently anti-theistic. Both of these pages acknowledge the many differing uses of both God and Christianity, while the atheist page only acknowledges one. So, I would add here that as theism tends to already come from a tradition, and atheism has none then it is much more likely that an atheist looking for either meaning or guidance will visit this site. Therefore I think that the real issue is to convince the atheist visitors that we are not anti-atheist, at least by one definition of the word.

        I think there are several options here, and this conversation has brought up several already. You have already hinted with a suggestion of atheism 1 and atheism 2. Katie (via Barry) has brought anti-theism to the table. I will now turn to a couple of definitions that might be helpful, the first is just the Oxford dictionary definition of atheist – I would usually avoid dictionary definitions but in this case the simplicity serves a purpose:

        ‘Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods’.

        This is useful because it covers both the atheism as defined by the Middle Way (disbelief = atheism 1) and atheism as defined by me (lack of belief = atheism 2). I think that it would be easy to acknowledge these two definitions and perhaps we could use hard atheism (1) and soft atheism (2). Soft atheism is also closely related (if not synonymous) with hard agnosticism.

        The other term that I think might be useful is anti-theist. Here is one definition, from skeptic.com:

        ‘Anti-theism is active and vocal opposition to belief in gods of any sort and to institutions built around belief in a deity. Anti-theists are not passive atheists; they delight in atheism and delight in exposing the errors, absurdities, and pretensions of theists. Anti-theists consider all gods to be false gods and any benefits from belief in gods to be far outweighed by the harm done by such beliefs to the individual and to society. Anti-theists don’t deny that there may be some benefits to some people some of the time due to their delusional belief in a deity or two, but they adamantly deny that faith in religious books or ideas is a good thing’.

        Now this sounds like a belief system, so maybe there could be a paragraph or sentence somewhere (probably on the atheist page) that states that we are not anti-theist or hard atheist.

        I am aware that all of this terminology could in itself cause confusion, so as long as something akin to the above is made clear, somewhere on the site, then we can continue to use both ‘hard agnostic’ and ‘atheist’, as we currently do, although I don’t see too much issue with being both soft atheist and hard agnostic, while not being hard atheist or anti-theist. And as confusing as this might be, it is not as confusing as the many possible uses of the word God can be.

        I’ll finish with quote, just to be a little cheeky. You have indicated that to be atheist is to hold a belief. Ricky Gervais (a love or loath character) says that:

        “Saying atheism is a belief system is like saying not going skiing is a hobby.”

        🙂 I think that this is how many atheists feel.

        Rich

  10. Re: the atheist vs. agnostic topic…

    Perhaps it’s an American phenomenon, but I seem to recall that some folks use “non-theist” in a way that suggests a lack of faith in God (or at least in classical theistic notions thereof).

    Given the more aggressive and/or antagonistic uses of “atheist” in recent years (Dawkins and Harris are the most celebrated examples, but in my experience they are by no means the most hostile), combined with the common misconception that “agnostic” refers to someone who is merely apathetic or “on the fence” when it comes to the God question (e.g. that s/he hasn’t thought seriously about it or that s/he believes there’s a 50-50 chance that the proposition is true), perhaps “non-theist” would be an acceptable addition to Middle-Way vocabulary (?)

    I still think “agnostic” (or “hard agnostic”, as Robert says) is technically accurate, and therefore holds an important position in religious-philosophical dialogue. But, on a more political (or public-relations) level, I admit that I also wish to cast doubt on the idea that self-identifying theists are any more “gnostic” on the subject than I am (say, in situations where I lack the opportunity to add such disclaimers), in which case “non-theist” seems more apt.

    1. Hi Jason,
      Thank you for your information on Obama Care, I hope the numbers continue to rise. Our NHS is creaking at the seams financially, yet the majority of us here would not wish to change ‘the free care for all’ system, of course it isn’t truly free, taxes pay for it. There is a strong reaction by the public against attempts to privatise many NHS departments, (when discovered), carried out at times without the public learning what such actions entail until too late, I think privatisation is creeping in unfortunately. I have no idea if the NHS will survive as it stands today, I very much hope so.

      I continue to be very interested in the atheism debate, this is purely my opinion but I have a sense that those with a firm religious belief may not be as attracted to this site, (since they have formed their belief system )but it may be for those who are wavering or searching for answers who may find a bolt hole in the MWS. On the other hand I agree too that the MWS should be available to all which it is.

  11. Hi Rich and Jason,
    I have added in this paragraph to the ‘Middle Way for Atheists’ page:
    “We are assuming ‘atheism’ to mean a denial of God’s existence here. Some atheists, however, define their atheism much more like hard agnosticism. They are entitled to use whatever language they like, but the disadvantage of using ‘atheism’ in this way is that it leaves us with no clear term for belief in the non-existence of God, and if we use ‘atheism’ to describe a Middle Way position it is also likely to induce premature rejection from theists.”

    I’m resistant to going into a detailed discussion of anti-theism and non-theism as well, just because the page is already long and complex enough.

    Ricky Gervais is funny, but my guess is that he doesn’t understand the difference between denialist scepticism and agnostic scepticism. Saying atheism is a belief strikes me as more like saying that some people think ski-ing is not a hobby than like saying that not going ski-ing is a hobby. My concern is that if people don’t get that crucial distinction on this issue, the same will go for other metaphysical dualisms – e.g. claiming that determinism is just not believing in freewill, or materialism is just failing to believe in the supernatural.

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