This post is in part an olive leaf to AndrewS as an attempt to satisify his concerns with loosely defining atheism. I firmly believe that arguing over definitions is pointless in a rational conversation (though probably valuable in a political one). So I see no reason to not give it to him. Thoughts on that topic lead to this post.
In my past posts, I defined an Ideal Rational Atheist like this:
Tentative Definition of Atheistic Rationalist (aka An Ideal Atheist): An atheistic rationalist is someone that seeks out the right kinds of explanations, namely ones that have survived the strongest criticisms and are highly (preferably computationally) specific and hard to vary, yet is always open to new ideas no matter what the source.
However, they do not accept any beliefs on mere leaps of faith and would rather not have their judgment (possibly) clouded by such faith-based beliefs. They’d rather see things as the naturalistically really are. Truth comes first for them. So they eschew all leaps of faith on the grounds that they may cloud our ability to find truth.
Based on this, I suggested that perhaps some religious view points, such as Buddhism, that in many cases rejected the existence of a god or gods separate from the universe, could be thought of as either atheists or theists depending on whether or not you have in mind the idea that an atheist disbelieves the existence of a separate god or if an atheist has to be specifically a materialistic rationalist.
Andrew S was uncomfortable with my view point. He felt that atheism should really be defined as specifically any view point that accepts the existence of a separate god-like being or beings. If Buddhism does believe in such beings (as some forms do) then they are Theists. If it does not (as some forms do not) then they are Atheist.
My point of view was that this is also an acceptable way to look at Atheism and Theism and I willing accept the fact that there is no one all encompassing way to define most terms and that we often use words in ways that are fuzzy on the boundaries and even contradictory at times.
Though I believe AndrewS defintion will run afoul of some religious views that accept God as “being itself” I still think it works as a pretty intuitive definition for Atheism vs. Theism. And, at a minimum, this definition solves issues like allowing us to label Deists (that believe in God but believe God to be indifferent to us) as Theists. (Whereas perhaps my approach would make them out as closer to Atheists on the spectrum.)
Andrew did not like my suggestion that we can “both be right” depending on how we’re looking at it and insisted he was right because his was the more intuitive definition and more people would accept it. I don’t know if this claim is true or not, but I do think “more people see it this way” does mean something. Specifically it means more people see it that way. And when it comes to word usage popular opinion counts.
However, nothing I’m writing hinges on a definition. So I just can’t see why I shouldn’t just capitulate (even if I’m less then certain he’s factually correct) and accept and adopt his definition for Atheism. So here it is:
The division between an Atheist and a Theist is whether or not you believe “God” to be a distinct being from the universe itself.
I tried to word that in such a way as to make an attempt to keep Karen Armstrong in the “atheist” category and Thomas Aquinas in the “Theist” category. But I suspect Armstrong would tell me that whatever category Aquinas goes into, she does too.
Truth be told, I suspect Karen Armstrong and some Pantheists will feel outed by this definition. But, I also basically agree with Andrew that Pantheists — particularly materialistic ones — probably often belong in the Atheist category anyhow, even if they object to the label. (I confess I feel differently about supernatural pantheists. But for now, I’m just accepting Andrew’s definition.)
And, since nothing I wrote hinged on whether or not my suggested definition was “the best” or not, I see no reason I can’t just capitulate (even if I’m not entirely convinced) and say “Okay, let’s assume Andrew’s definition is a more intuitive definition for Theism and Atheism and more people will accept it.”
Lovecraftian vs. Lewisian
The real point of my posts was to explore the difference between a certain specific kind of Atheism – that of materialistic, naturalistic, rationalist — as it compares to those that believe in a morally ordered and supernaturally-based reality.
I’ve suggested the term “Lovecraftian” in the past as a view that the universe is indifferent to us and actually will eventually wipe out everything we care about. I am going to suggest the term “Lewisian” (named after C.S. Lewis, who is the un-Lovecraft) as a new category of person that believes in a reality that is Divine and has supernatural elements that make reality morally ordered, contrary to how it currently appears. 
So if I am not talking about all Atheists and all Theists, then what I’m really talking about are those that have Lovecraftian-ish beliefs about our fate vs. those that have a religious or supernatural view point that reality is more morally ordered then it currently appears to be.
Using Andrew’s definition (which I am now accepting) clearly some Buddhists are Theists and some are Atheists because some believe in “gods” and some do not.
But if we are talking about Buddhists that believe in reincarnation, karma, and nirvana, then they are Lewisians whether we label them Theists or Atheists.
There is something else that is interesting about the Buddhist example. Buddhism historically grew up from Hinduism. Buddhism therefore grew up amongst people that culturally accepted the existence of the Hindu gods.
In my world religions class, I remember an interview with Buddhists monks where they explained their (at least in this form of Buddhism) worship of gods as something that was accepted, but not preferred. In short, they accepted that the gods existed and could be worshiped in exchange for material benefit. And they did not command against doing this. But the gods were, according to those interviewed, themselves as lost and in need of Nirvana. Therefore, the gods are no help at all in following the Buddhist way and reaching Nirvana. These gods themselves need Buddhism as much as we do.
Buddhism actually instills the universe itself with all the ‘divine nature.’ It creates us and, through karma, corrects us and teaches us. And eventually we reach nirvana and become one with it. The “gods” of Buddhism (particularly in this brand of it) play no real divine role at all.
This is why I personally have a hard time thinking of Buddhists as atheists, even if they don’t accept the existence of gods. In many ways, learning to reject the existence of gods is a natural part of Buddhism. The gods were never a preferred path. The Divine Universe is the real path Buddhists believe we are to follow.
To me Buddhists – even the atheist variety that accept no gods – still have much more in common with Theists then they do with materialistic Atheists. My new division between Lovecraftians and Lewisians is, in my opinion, the reason why. Supernatural Buddhists, even the atheistic ones, are still Lewisians. There is still some divine center that they ‘worship’ (meditate) to hear its voice and become one with it. And they still believe in a hidden supernatural order – just like most Theists – that is secretly morally ordering the universe between lives. This is the important common touch point between them and, say, Christians and not a belief in “gods.”
Further, I personally have never really considered a belief in “God” to be limited to a “being.” I have always accepted that some religions, like Buddhism, believe in a sort of impersonal God-force that underlies reality. But I can see why thinking of “God” that way might not work for some people. So that is why I am suggesting the Lovecraftian / Lewisian divide is the more important divide then the Atheist / Theist divide.
I see no reason why we shouldn’t accept Andrew’s view of Atheism. But I will insist that this just means that my Lovecraftian vs. Lewian divide is a separate and non-mutually exclusive point worthy of discussion all its own. Think of it like the following chart:
|Lewisian||Buddhists that don’t believe in gods; Praying Atheists that believe in heaven and hell; Supernatural Pantheists||Christians; Aquinas (?); Buddhists that do believe in gods; Deists that believe in an afterlife; Almost everyone else that believes in God|
|Lovecraftian||Hard Headed Rationalists; Militant Atheists; Materialists; Karen Armstrong (?); Non-Literal Theists; Non-Supernatural Pantheists||Deists that believe in a God that is morally indifferent to us (or at odds with us) and provides no after life.|
I will never really be fully comfortable with Andrew’s choice on how to split up Atheists and Theists precisely because I can’t accept that his Atheist-Buddhists are anything but Theists under a funny re-label scheme. But I don’t doubt Andrew’s sincerity that he finds my labeling scheme funny too. And I’ll accept that his view just might be more widely accepted.
I have less issue with thinking of Deists as “Theists that are also Lovecraftians” so long as we can see that they might have more in common with most Atheists then with other Theists. And while my preference is to think of Atheists that pray and believe in heaven as a type of Theists, I am also okay with thinking of them as Lewisian-Atheists instead. And perhaps they’d be happier with that label too.
My feeling is that being dogmatic over the meaning of a word is not helpful or useful in a rational discussion, so I will be the one to fully give on this point (rather than the mere partial give I was offering before by saying “we’re both right.”) I hope Andrew will accept this olive leaf post as an explanation of my intent.
This is where the concept of Something-Like-God. Buddhists — even the atheist variety — do believe in Something-Like-God. To them, its just how the universe works. But there is nonetheless Something-Like-God underlying their beliefs. What I am really saying is that we should split Lewisian and Lovecraftians along lines on whether or not they believe in “Something-Like-God” or not.
This brings up an interesting question. Do materialistic Deists that believe in an indifferent God believe in “Something-Like-God”? They believe in God, of course. But is that God equivalent to what I am calling “Something-Like-God”? I think this is where things get a bit confusing. For I am specifically reserving the term “Something-Like-God” for a label for a God or Supernatural force that is ultimately morally ordered and thus not morally indifferent to us. Buddhism qualifies, materialistic Deism probably does not.
 Of course I’m going to continue to insist that there is probably no such thing as a true full on Lovecraftian. So this category would merely be people that hold beliefs that life will be utterly wiped out in the end, even if they accept some very un-Nihilistic beliefs as well (i.e. the importance of morality, for example, or the reality of personal meaning.)