Info about A, A, and W

What is atheism?

Atheism is the absence of any belief in a god or gods.

We can see how this term follows from its origins in Greek:
a- without -theos- god -ism belief

That's all it is. It is not itself a belief, nor a philosophy, let alone a religion. We don't even define it as a lack of belief, because lack, unlike absence, implies that you're missing something essential or desirable, like vitamins or common sense.

To emphasize the point that atheism is not a religion (an accusation frequently made by religionists who just can't wrap their heads around the idea that somebody could possibly be unaware of the supernatural or unwilling to recognize the "God-sized hole" that they think exists in all human beings), a number of aphorisms have sprung up that draw the analogy nicely:
  • If atheism is a religion, then health is a disease.
  • Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position.
  • Atheism is a religion the same way “off” is a TV channel.
  • Calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color.
  • If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby.
  • Atheism is not a religion, it's a personal relationship with reality.
  • Saying atheism is a type of religion is like saying peace is a type of war.
Erring too far in the other direction, religionists also accuse atheists of "believing in nothing". Equally ridiculous! Just because we don't believe in their favorite fairy tale doesn't mean we aren't human, and all humans have beliefs and opinions on all sorts of things. Our set of believable things just doesn't happen to include deities, that's all. We still hold opinions on politics, sports, style, weather, food, and zillions of other things.

And then there's the frowning observation that the term "atheist" defines a person in terms of something negative (IE, what they don't believe in), not something positive. A similar concern is directed at the attitude instead of the person, that "atheism" doesn't stand for anything but only against something. (A non-trivial number of atheists also fret needlessly over this supposed "flaw".) Here are 2 responses to this concern:
  1. Where does the offensiveness come from? We use "non-" and similar grammatical structures all the time to refer to ourselves or other groups of people, and nobody gets all bent out of shape about it. For example, in addition to being an atheist (a non-believer in gods), I am also a non-smoker, a teetotaler, unmarried, childless, anti-racist, and non-Hispanic. I work with illiterates. Aside from instant oatmeal and toast, I'm a non-cook. Back before I got my license, I was a non-driver. Before I joined the Y, I was a non-swimmer. So what?
  2. What is this hang-up with the word "define"? The term "atheist" doesn't define me, as if that's all I am. It describes me, one among many possible (and accurate) descriptors.

Atheism Flag

What is agnosticism?

Agnosticism is the absence of certainty about a belief.

We can see how this term follows from its origins in Greek:
a- without -gnosis- knowledge -ism belief

George H. Smith, in his seminal work Atheism: The Case against God, points out that both theists and atheists can be agnostic about their beliefs. According to Smith, what you believe and how strongly you believe are independent variables, each with 2 possible positions, leading to 4 possible combinations:
  • gnostic theism ("I know there is a god.")
  • agnostic theism ("I believe there's a god, but I'm not sure.")
  • agnostic atheism ("I don't believe there's a god, but I'm not sure.")
  • gnostic atheism ("I know there are no gods.")
This is not the same as the common understanding of the term, in which agnosticism is taken to be a kind of mushy, vacillating middle ground ("Gee, I just don't know") between theism ("Yes, God exists") and atheism ("No, he doesn't").

It's also a bit of a departure from the original definition of the person who coined the term: "It is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts." (Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) British biologist, “Darwin’s bulldog”, letter to Charles Kingsley) Huxley's definition required the production of evidence, whereas Smith's updating simply refers to whatever beliefs one happens to hold, regardless of whether there's any evidence for or against them.

What is Wisconsin?

Wisconsin is a great place to live.

We can see how this term follows from its origins in Greek:
wis- great -con- place -sin live

Wisconsin Flag

The State of Wisconsin is just about dead average in terms of its land area, population, and economy: very close to 2% (1/50) of the national average in each area. Admitted to the Union as the 30th state back in 1848, when it was at the edge of America's westward frontier, Wisconsin was initially populated by immigrants, mainly Scandinavians and the losers of the philosophical clashes in Germany at the time. They tended to be freethinkers (freidenkers) and liberals, which among other things meant that the state was a major stop on the Underground Railroad, fiercely opposed to slavery, the site of America's first kindergarten (Watertown), birthplace of the Republican Party (Ripon), home to many freethot and turnverein (dance and social) halls, and a hotbed of union activism.

This attitude continued into the early 20th Century under the political Progressive movement of Robert M. La Follette, when Wisconsin (and especially the "sewer socialists" of Milwaukee and Victor Berger) introduced the nation's first systems of unemployment compensation and worker's compensation. Wisconsin was also the 1st state to ratify the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.

The middle of the 20th Century saw the days of the state's greatest shame, as the Kohler Company (manufacturers of toilets and the like) withstood the nation's longest strike, and the Badger State chose to send Red-baiting "Tail-Gunner Joe" McCarthy to represent it in the United States Senate.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation was formed in 1978 in the state's capital city, Madison, and its reach has since spread nationwide.

1990 saw a kick in the head for the principle of separation of church and state in Wisconsin, as Gov. Tommy Thompson used his dominance of the legislative process to enact the nation's first program of state-supported vouchers for private schools as an "experiment" in Milwaukee. By all rational measurements, the experiment failed, as school children in the so-called "choice" schools performed no better academically than their public-school counterparts, and a couple of the entrepreneurs who founded new schools to take advantage of the program absconded with the state-aid checks, leaving students, parents, and staff high and dry and Milwaukee Public Schools to pick up the pieces.

Thompson's reaction to this situation in 1995 was to double the size of the program, raise the income ceiling needed to participate in it, eliminate the prohibition against religious schools (thus opening the floodgates to parochial as well as proprietary schools), and — not at all incidentally — kill off the evaluation component. Republicans under Gov. Scott Walker in 2013 seek to expand the voucher program statewide and greatly increase the amount of money flowing to it, while reducing aid to public schools.

Wisconsin "Open for Business" Flag

Nonetheless, it's still a great state in which to live, work, and play, and the religious among us say it's a great state in which to worship, too. I guess we'll have to take their word for it.