Is there a “beyond atheism”?

Penn Jillette gave a funny little spiel on NPR this morning (follow the link for the complete text).

Jillette says he’s not just an atheist; he’s “beyond atheism.” Atheism, for Jillette, is just “not believing in God.” Jillette, by contrast, believes that there is no God.

Excuse me for seeming a bit dull, but how are these two things different? If I don’t believe in God, then I’m not saying there’s a God out there somewhere, and I just don’t happen to believe in him/her.

As an atheist, I’m not saying it could go one way or another — I’m not an agnostic; I’m saying God doesn’t exist. Now Jillette is trying to argue that I’m not hard-core enough for him. (Semi-related aside: the other day we had a couple over for dinner — they’re new in town — and they asked where we went to church. Greta casually said “well, I’m a Presbyterian, but Dave’s an atheist.” As if there’s some kind of church where the atheists go. That doesn’t seem quite right to me either.)

Let’s assume there’s something different between an “atheist” and someone who believes there is no God. Do we have to come up with a new name for such a person? When we come up with the name (antitheist? notheist? notgoddist?), who will want to be called an atheist? What percentage of the population that’s not “agnostic” will want to claim that they don’t believe in God, but aren’t quite willing to take that extra step and say there is no God?

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3 Responses to Is there a “beyond atheism”?

  1. Michelle says:

    I wonder if he’s trying to call attention to our fixation on labels. Somehow, I’ve never found the definitions of “atheist” or “agnostic” or even “spiritual” to encompass how I feel towards the possibility of God’s existence.

  2. Anne says:

    For me, Jillette’s desire for a new word makes sense. I think of atheists and agnostics as people bound up in rejecting religion rather than people genuinely a-theistic, without religion. This comes, I’m sure, from too much reading on my part about the agonies of Victorian intellectuals for whom rejecting or doubting God was an agony, not a naturalized fact.

  3. KaneCitizen says:

    Atheism, for Jillette, is just “not believing in God.” Jillette, by contrast, believes that there is no God.

    I am a huge Penn Jillette fan, but it sounds to me that he is using the same gimmick with atheism/agnosticism as Fox News did (until recently, I think) of calling suicide bombers “homicide bombers.” That is, “suicide” didn’t sound homicide-ish enough for Fox, so they would substitute a phrase that doesn’t really make sense, and simply redefine “homicide” to mean suicide.

    Similarly, it sounds like Penn wants to redefine “atheist” to mean “agnostic,” maybe because he didn’t think “atheist” sounded atheistic-ish enough for him.

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