There seem to have been a strong increase in entymological arguments lately, more precisely regarding the term atheist.
I have reread the thread and i think i see where it goes very wrong. To quote Essan right at the beginning:
Excuse me if I misunderstand the debate, but isn't atheism the belief that there is no God, which is the polar opposite of belief in God?
Lets try to make it clear. I believe Essan adopt the definitions:
A theist is a person who say: "I believe there is a God"
An atheist is a person who say: "I believe there is no God"
Essan then continue:
They are both belief systems. A 'negative' belief is still a belief. The atheist asserts a belief: "There is no God", which he can't really prove, much like the Christian.
The above is wrong. The problem in the thread is that it seem that atheists very strongly begin to argue they are being misrepresented; atheism merely mean "without God" or similar, and Essan quite correctly point out that if it really mean that, why do they keep saying they "believe there is no God"? to quote: "Agnosticism, on the other hand, is withholding judgement, whereas both belief in God and atheism both make a judgement without full knowledge."
wrong wrong wrong: Like so many words in english, the word belief has two different meanings.
When a christian say: "I believe there is a God", I am not entirely sure what he mean. The dictionary list "belief" as sononymous with "faith", and it do seem that Essans main complaint is that atheism in, effect, become a faith in no God, which he contrast with agnostisism, which merely say one cannot be sure either way.
That is a complete misuse of the english language.
The archtypical atheist is a scientist who happends not to believe (yes, yes) in God like Dawkins. We must thus assume he use "believe" in the statement "I believe there is no God" in the sence it is defined in science. If we dig, we see it have a very precise definition which is at the center of what science is. So once and for all, here goes:
When a scientist say: "I believe in X" that mean: "I assign relatively high probability to the hypothesis that X is true".
read a fundamental textbook on the subject, I would suggest Jaynes "Probability Theory", and see what i mean. Its a very integrated part of the mathematical/scientific vocabulary. For example, one of the most common inferrence algorithms is known as "belief propagation".
Thus the statement:
"I believe there is no God"
Is really translated into:
"I assign relatively low probability to the hypothesis God exist".
So when we see statements like:
A 'negative' belief is still a belief. The atheist asserts a belief: "There is no God", which he can't really prove, much like the Christian.
Its pretty damn clear that Essan is mixing two different definitions of the same word, and create a completely meaningless sentence. It also mean there is no reason why atheists should fight statements like: "belief in no God", simply because belief is such an integrated part of the scientific vocabulary (i believe the earth is round, i believe there is no pink unicorn..) that we will, eventually, say it by accident leading to much confusion. Rather, we should educate our theistic friends what we mean by the words to avoid confusion.
Returning to the entire atheistic definition thing, yes, atheists believe there is no God. We are not certain there is no God. If thats your definition, certainty (DIFFERENT than belief!), we are all agnostic - but in that case, we are also agnostic with respect to the validity of all scientific theories and observations. I think that is quite a silly position.