What does Atheism really mean?

In the April 2010 Reasonable Faith Newsletter, William Lane Craig had this to say about his visit to the University of North Carolina and his debate with Herb Silverman at UNCW, the Faculty Forum on the existence of God.

“Around 1,000 people showed up to hear a very rousing debate. As is typical with secular humanist types, Dr. Silverman had very little of substance to say about the arguments for or against God’s existence (indeed, he presented no arguments against God’s existence, taking the lazy man’s route of re-defining atheism to be just the psychological state of being without a belief in God).”[1]

Atheism has traditionally been defined as the belief that God does not exist. This remains the formal definition in the Philosophy of Religion.[2] Though not usually done, this idea can legitimately be expanded in certain contexts to include the denial of any particular god or gods. The early Christians for instance were called Atheists because they denied the existence of a whole pantheon of Roman god’s.

In recent years there has been a further expansion of the term to what Craig describes above as “the psychological state of being without a belief in God.” The columnist Christopher Hitchens advocated this construal of atheism during his debate with Craig last year (2209) at Biola University. Antony Flew, formally the worlds leading Atheist intellectual recognizes this shift of definition in the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy of Religion.

“…the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way.  Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist.”[3]

It is said that this shift in definition is taken up to avoid the burden of making an argument. No longer does the atheist have to make an argument, because atheism has changed from being a view to being a psychological state. The first must have a truth-value, while the second is absent any proposition, and therefore has no truth-value.

But have these “atheists” truly escaped the burden of making an argument? I think not for at least two reasons.

First, in moments of honesty you will find that those who claim to be Atheist’s of the new variety are actually undercover atheists of the old variety. Ask any of them in an unguarded moment, “Do you believe there’s a God?” and what answer will you get? There answer will be “No.” They may say “no” in different ways, like “God is a Delusion,” (Richard Dawkins) or “You won’t find me guilty of wishful thinking.” (Christopher Hitchens). Bill Cook, the president of the New Zealand Secular Humanist Society in debate and in print has chosen to define atheism in this new, unorthodox way. In debate Craig caught him out by pointing out that a god merely in the imagination and a god not existing is “a difference without a difference.” A recent Thinking Matters comment stated something comparable to; “I’m not arguing that God doesn’t exist. I just want you to admit that the essential attributes of your God are incoherent.” This is philosophical double-speak. At bottom, these Atheist’s still hold to the classical construal of Atheism, no matter the lip service they give to a having no-belief regarding God.

The absurdity of their insistence on the new definition, is that if it were so, babies, dogs and cats, even trees should also be considered Atheists. Further still, if Atheism on the new construal were diligently and systematically applied, it would be totally compatible with for Theism being true, and even the more rationally respectable option. So if this truly is what Atheists mean by “Atheism,” why is it that the New Atheist’s rail against the notion of God so much? Misquoting Shakespeare, my history professor said of Dawkins, “Methinks he doth protest too much.”

The extreme expression of this linguistic pose is Reggie Finlay, the host of the Infidel Guy Radio program. He will describe himself as an Atheist-Agnostic or Agnostic-Atheist. Agnostic because he recognizes that he cannot know with certainty that God does not exist, and Atheist because he believes that nevertheless Atheism is the more likely than Theism. Findlay says, “I really doubt it [theism].”

To this you may respond, “What reason is there to think that Atheism is more reasonable than Theism?” You would be right to do so. Here is the second reason for why the atheist has not escaped the burden of having to make an argument. Because they implicitly, sometimes explicitly, make the claim that traditional Atheism is the more probable candidate. This claim, like any other positive assertion, needs philosophical justification. Thus the new brand of Atheist is in the difficult position of once again having to support his position with arguments lest he be called irrational.

Attempts of deflection are unsuccessful. Generally Atheist’s appeal to the idea that it is Theism that makes a claim to knowledge that has not yet been demonstrated, so we should not believe God exists in the absence of evidence. This appeal is what is called the Presumption of (traditional) Atheism. It is a poor appeal in two respects.

First off, Atheism also makes a claim to knowledge that cannot be demonstrated. Why then does the adherent of Atheism adopt this psychological state of non-belief in God? Was a coin flipped? Why not non-belief in Atheism? Why not Agnostic-theism?

Second, this appeal relies on idea that all the arguments for Theism, such as the cosmological, teleological, axiological, ontological and historical arguments, etc., are unsuccessful. This lays a heavy burden on the Atheist who now has to try and find reasons to either deny (highly plausible) premises or show an informal fallacy of some sort in the arguments for God’s existence. This is an uncomfortable position to be in as it will always be on the back-foot – defensive mode.

The Atheist might try to appeal to make other appeals, such as to the presence of evil in the world. But once they go there, they are once again in the difficult situation of trying to make arguments like their Atheistic intellectual forebears. Arguments that, after years of re-formulation, eventually grew tired and were found not to work. For instance, Christopher Hitchens, whose only argument (or shall we say railing?) is the Problem of Evil, embarrassingly admitted in a panel discussion in Dallas Texas that the presence of evil and suffering in the world could be explained coherently on the Christian worldview.

If my arguments are correct, then one implication is that Atheism is not the default position or a position of intellectual innocence/neutrality. As rational agents we should be able to give account for the justification of our beliefs and the Atheist must accept this fact, no less than the Theist. Personally, I think so-called Agnostic-atheists, non-theists, a-theists, etc., should tie their shoelaces and become either full-fledged Atheists, or kept faithfully to Agnosticism while calling it thus.


[1] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith April Newsletter 2010, www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=8081

[2] Atheism: “the view that there is no divine being, no God.” Penguin dictionary of Philosophy. Edited by Thomas Mautner. Penguin Books (1996)

“Atheism is ostensibly the doctrine that there is no God.” The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Edited by Ted Honderich. Oxford University press (1995)

The belief that God – especially a personal, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God – does not exist.” The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. BUNNIN, NICHOLAS and JIYUAN YU (eds). Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

“Atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief.” William Rowe (1998). Atheism. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Rowe does go on to say in the article: “Another meaning of ‘atheism’ is simply nonbelief in the existence of God, rather than positive belief in the nonexistence of God. These two different meanings are sometimes characterized as positive atheism (belief in the nonexistence of God) and negative atheism (lack of belief in the existence of God). Barring inconsistent beliefs, a positive atheist is also a negative atheist, but a negative atheist need not be a positive atheist.”

[3] A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro (Oxford:  Blackwell, 1997), s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew.

I am indebted to Jason Kumar for most of these footnoted references as well as excellent editorial advice.

111 replies
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  1. Ryft Braeloch
    Ryft Braeloch says:

    <cite>… an immaterial, disembodied, powerful, all-knowing and all-good God who has created the universe, then life on an infinitesimal part of it, and chooses an even smaller section of that life and gets angry that they touched themselves at night. It also claims to know all, but also claims that its subjects also have this thing called "free will."</cite>

    Thanks for the supercilious caricature. It was entertaining despite its shallow irrelevance. I suppose you were confused about what it means to investigate something "under its own terms." You began appropriately enough but, for no obvious reason, decided to start stuffing it full of straw, leaving Christianity "under its own terms" unchallenged. Here's some baling wire, and a broom for the mess. When you're done, the Christian faith will be over here waiting for any valid criticisms.

    <cite>An all-knowing god would know what its subjects would do in advance.</cite>

    That is true only for a god who is temporally bounded (i.e., a future and a past). The God revealed in Scriptures has a very different sort of existence; as the creator of our spacetime manifold, he necessarily transcends its spatial and temporal dimensions. Among his attributes is the one called omnipresence, which Aiden Tozer aptly characterized this way: "In God there is no was or will be, but a continuous and unbroken is. In him, history and prophecy are one and the same." Or as Charles Spurgeon put it, "With God there is no past, and can be no future … What we call past, present, and future, he wraps up in one eternal now."

  2. Ryft Braeloch
    Ryft Braeloch says:

    <blockquote cite="">… an immaterial, disembodied, powerful, all-knowing and all-good God who has created the universe, then life on an infinitesimal part of it, and chooses an even smaller section of that life and gets angry that they touched themselves at night. It also claims to know all, but also claims that its subjects also have this thing called "free will."

    Thanks for the supercilious caricature. It was entertaining despite its shallow irrelevance. I suppose you were confused about what it means to investigate something "under its own terms." You began appropriately enough but, for no obvious reason, decided to start stuffing it full of straw, leaving Christianity "under its own terms" unchallenged. Here's some baling wire, and a broom for the mess. When you're done, the Christian faith will be over here waiting for any valid criticisms.

    <blockquote cite="">An all-knowing god would know what its subjects would do in advance.

    That is true only for a god who is temporally bounded (i.e., a future and a past). The God revealed in Scriptures has a very different sort of existence; as the creator of our spacetime manifold, he necessarily transcends its spatial and temporal dimensions. Among his attributes is the one called omnipresence, which Aiden Tozer aptly characterized this way: "In God there is no was or will be, but a continuous and unbroken is. In him, history and prophecy are one and the same." Or as Charles Spurgeon put it, "With God there is no past, andcan be no future … What we call past, present, and future, he wraps up in one eternal now."

  3. Joe
    Joe says:

    That is true only for a god who is temporally bounded (i.e., a future and a past). The God revealed in Scriptures has a very different sort of existence; as the creator of our spacetime manifold, he necessarily transcends its spatial and temporal dimensions. Among his attributes is the one called omnipresence, which Aiden Tozer aptly characterized this way: “In God there is no was or will be, but a continuous and unbroken is. In him, history and prophecy are one and the same.” Or as Charles Spurgeon put it, “With God there is no past, andcan be no future … What we call past, present, and future, he wraps up in one eternal now.”

    Are you saying god is timeless? are you saying god is in hell, since he is "everywhere"?

  4. Joe
    Joe says:

    God is not “timeless” (nowhere in time) so much as “timeful” (everywhere in time).

    Explain how this is supposed to make sense.

  5. Lol
    Lol says:

    Atheism is a RESPONSE TO A CLAIM OF A GOD EXISTING. It is the non belief in a particular god. Anti-theism is the denial of a particular god existing. These are two very different things. We're all Atheists in regards to most gods, e.g a christian is a Zeus Atheist.

    "Ask any of them in an unguarded moment, “Do you believe there’s a God?” and what answer will you get? There answer will be “No.”"

    Of course an Atheist will tell you they don't believe in god, you can choose not to believe in something, but at the same time not deny it's existence, this is the Atheists standpoint.

    I've written this as plainly and simply as i can, so that people will understand.

    Also, much of the argument here seems to be about defining the word "Atheism", the major disagreement being that the word has changed meaning over the years. This is almost totally irrelevant! Atheists today go by today's definition. Please don't argue using your misinterpretation of the word, you're not going to get anywhere.

  6. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hello Lol,

    Thanks for your perspective.

    Actually, I think the majority of the conversation here had been with respect to the atheist's (how ever that is defined) burden of proof. I'm quite willing to grant (what I see as a) barstardized definition of atheism, (and frankly for many a dishonest one) as long as the atheist recognizes s/he doesn't get a free lunch when it comes to justifying their position with reasons.

  7. Matt_flannagan
    Matt_flannagan says:

    Simon claimed Any and every claim needs evidentiary justificationFine then until Simon provides some evidentary justification for this particular claim we can reject it as on par with belief in fairies and spaghetti monsters.

  8. CrazyHorse
    CrazyHorse says:

    Antony Flew's definition in the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy of Religion.

    "an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist.”[3]

    The principle in philosophy of Burden of Proof puts the onus on who asserts, must prove.

  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Agreed,

    One of the points above seeks to explain that the "atheist" (given the newer construal of the term) who, when informed of the arguments for God's existence yet remains committed to his/her atheism, implicitly makes a claim that his/her psychological state is more rational than the Theistic position. Thus the "atheist" is not without an assertion, and must, on pain of reasonableness and/or rationality, carry a burden of proof.

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