Does atheism mean “a lack of belief in God”?

First, let’s see check with the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Excerpt:

‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.

Stanford University is one of the top 5 universities in the United States, so that’s a solid definition. To be an atheist is to be a person who makes the claim that, as a matter of FACT, there is no intelligent agent who created the universe. Atheists think that there is no God, and theists think that there is a God. Both claims are objective claims about the way the world is out there, and so both sides must furnish forth arguments and evidence as to how they are able to know what they are each claiming.

Philosopher William Lane Craig has some thoughts on atheism, atheists and lacking belief in God in this reply to a questioner.

Question:

In my discussions with atheists, they  are using the term that they “lack belief in God”. They claim that this is different from not believing in God or from saying that God does not exist. I’m not sure how to respond to this. It seems to me that its a silly word-play and is logically the same as saying that you do not believe in God.
What would be a good response to this?
Thank you for your time,

Steven

And here is Dr. Craig’s full response:

Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God.  Compare my saying, “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.”   If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars.  There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).”   Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.

But where your atheist friends err is in claiming that atheism involves only not believing that there is a God rather than believing that there is no God.

There’s a history behind this.  Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist.  Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists.

So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken.  For the assertion that “There is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “There is a God.”  Therefore, the former assertion requires justification just as the latter does.  It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence.  He confesses that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or whether there is no God.

But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.”  So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists).  As Antony Flew confesses,

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

Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view.  It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all.  On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists!  In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.

One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.

So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position?  Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists.  If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view.  But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof.  So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions.  They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.

This is disingenuous and still leaves us asking, “So is there a God or not?”

So there you have it. We are interested in what both sides know and what reasons and evidence they have to justify their claim to know. We are interested in talking to people who make claims about objective reality, not about themselves, and who then go on to give reasons and evidence to support their claims about objective reality. There are atheists out there that do make an objective claim that God does not exist, and then support that claim with arguments and evidence. Those are good atheists, and we should engage in rational conversations with them. But clearly there are some atheists who are not like that. How should we deal with these “subjective atheists”?

Dealing with subjective atheists

How should theists respond to people who just want to talk about their psychological state? Well, my advice is to avoid them. They are approaching religion irrationally and non-cognitively – like the person who enters a physics class and says “I lack a belief in the gravitational force!”.  When you engage in serious discussions with people about God’s existence, you only care about what people know and what they can show to be true. We don’t care about a person’s psychology.

Dealing with persistent subjective atheists

What happens when you explain all of that to a subjective atheist who continues to insist that you listen to them repeat over and over “I lack a belief in God, I lack a belief in God”? What if you tell them to make the claim that God does not exist, and then support it with arguments and evidence, but instead they keep leaving comments on your blog telling you again and again about their subjective state of mind: “I lack a belief in cupcakes! I lack a belief in icebergs!” What if they keep e-mailing you and threatening to expose you on Twitter for refusing to listen to them, or denounce you via skywriting: “Wintery Knight won’t listen to me! I lack a belief in crickets!”. I think at this point you have to give up and stop talking to such a person.

And that’s why I moderate and filter comments on this blog. There are uneducated people out there with access to the Internet who want attention, but I am not obligated to give it to them. And neither are you. We are not obligated to listen to abusive people who don’t know what they are talking about. I do post comments from objective atheists who make factual claims about the objective world, and who support those claims with arguments and evidence. I am not obligated to post comments from people who refuse to make objective claims or who refuse to support objective claims with arguments and evidence. And I’m not obligated to engage in discussions with them, either.

15 thoughts on “Does atheism mean “a lack of belief in God”?”

    1. Michael, I think if you look at the facts, you’ll find that reason was significant to Lewis’ conversion.

      Link:
      http://cslewis.drzeus.net/papers/reluctant.html

      Quote:

      Autobiographical allusions are not hard to find in Lewis’s writings. The first comparison of Lewis’s experience and his fiction is the presence of mentors to guide the convert into belief. For Lewis, these mentors were both books and friends. He recounts in his autobiography the role Phantastes by George MacDonald played in his conversion. The romantic fantasy book illuminated his perception of Joy and his “imagination was . . . baptized” by the experience (Surprised 180-81). However, Lewis claimed that this experience did not affect his intellectual understanding of religion or his obedience to its precepts. (qtd. in Green 45).

      Further reading and other men effected these changes in his intellect and obedience. Perhaps the most life-changing conversation Lewis had was with Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien in 1931. Already converted to theism, Lewis was resolving the intellectual barriers to his faith in Christ. One night the three met at Oxford University and discussed myth until the early hours of the morning. Tolkien and Dyson helped Lewis see that he could accept the Christian redemption myth just as he accepted redemption myths in other folklore, with the exception that the Christian version actually happened. After this evening, Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greaves confessing, “How deep I am just now beginning to see. I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity” (Dorsett 54). Despite his brilliance and his desire to not be interfered with (Surprised 228), Lewis never would have converted if it had not been for mentors, both friends and books, instructing him and leading him to a faith in Christ.

      His mentors were professors at Oxford University and the University of Reading.

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  1. These negative atheists are dyslexic. They claim that atheism is a lack of belief in God, instead of a belief in a lack of God.

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  2. Whenever atheists pull the “burden of proof” line, I point out that when they make the negative claim, “There is no God”, they are actually implying a positive – that the universe and everything therein came about by purely natural means. This, of course, cannot be proven empirically as there was no observer present.

    Therefore, both parties are making positive claims – neither of which can be proven empirically. So the discussion isn’t about proof at all, but plausibility, i.e. “What’s more likely?”

    Game on.

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  3. I’m not sure about this (I’m not well read in this area), but perhaps there’s an epistemological school of thought that says for any postulated X, you shouldn’t believe X exists unless there’s some positive reason to think so.

    Bertrand Russell did something like this, when he compared a belief that God existed to a belief that a teapot orbits the Sun between Earth and Mars. Russell’s Teapot became a favourite debating ploy of a certain kind of atheist, until it was succeeded by the Invisible Pink Unicorn and the Flying Spaghetti Monster (the latter was invoked against ID, but has come to be used in much the same way as the other two).

    But it seems clear that such an epistemology is flawed.

    If I want to refute Russell’s Teapot, for example, I won’t simply say, “I believe there is no teapot, because as far as I know there is no good reason to believe there is a teapot.” Instead, I’ll say, “I believe there is no teapot, because as far as I know there is no good reason to believe there is a teapot, and there are good reasons to believe there is no such teapot.” Namely, as far as we know, teapots are exclusively man-made artifacts, found only on Earth, and there’s no known mechanism by which a teapot could have travelled from Earth to a point en route to Mars and then entered into a stable solar orbit.

    Analogous reasons not to believe could be advanced for IPUs and the FSM.

    Compare that to the claim that a certain star in the Andromeda galaxy has an Earth-like planet orbiting it. Now, if someone put that claim to me, I’d have to say, “You could be right, but I’m not going to agree that you definitely are right without supporting evidence.” I’m not going to say, “You’re wrong; there is no such planet,” unless I’m prepared to advance evidence of my own. (Of course, unlike the existence of God, the existence of such a planet makes two-thirds of five-eighths of stuff all difference to me anyway.)

    The atheist might at this point say that there really are good reasons to disbelieve in gods in general, or (more specifically) in our God. Well, then, he can advance those reasons, and we can discuss them. He’d better come prepared to learn, because the chances are that he’s arguing against something we don’t actually believe in. And he’s certainly moved himself out of the, “I merely lack belief in God,” category. (A category, by the way, that he shares with such heavyweights as Mount Everest, Tane Mahuta, and Moby Dick, and shows that either he’s lying, he’s agnostic rather than atheist, or he’s never even thought about the question.)

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  4. WK…. It would appear that G_d uses various people and to personalize salvation.

    Here is the CS Lewis quote from Surprised by Joy.

    Lewis: “I would not put it that way. What I wrote in Surprised by Joy was that ‘before God closed in on me, I was offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice.’ But I feel my decision was not so important. I was the object rather than the subject in this affair. I was decided upon. I was glad afterwards at the way it came out, but at the moment what I heard was God saying, ‘Put down your gun and we’ll talk.’”

    Btw, I really think G_d really prefers a intellectually honest atheist far more than a luke warm Christian.

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    1. Michael Singer, what do I have to do to get you to read an apologetics book? Tell me. I want you to read a nice apologetics book. How about “Is God Just a Human Invention?”? That’s a good one.

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  5. Even psychological state atheists make an implicit claim. When they lack positive belief in God they are asserting that there is no compelling evidence for God, which can be argued. Even our non-beliefs have hidden positions behind them, sometimes the trick is to just find that and argue it.

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  6. Atheists like to say they do not claim there is no God, but only that they have no faith in God. They say there is the possibility of God, but they don’t think He exists. Technically, that makes them agnostic, but they won’t claim that either.

    If atheism does not mean “I believe God does not exist.” then atheism means nothing at all.

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  7. If atheism doesn’t mean “I believe God does not exist.” Then atheism means nothing at all. If atheism means, “I have no faith that a God, which could possibly exist, actually does exist,” then atheism is really just agnosticism.

    The fact is there is no atheist argument, and the atheists know that. That’s why they are trying to redefine themselves, but they still end up looking like fools. Because to say there is no rational evidence pointing to God’s existence is the apex of avoidance.

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  8. Lol WK…. I just ordered it off Amazon (order # 002-4908070-0961821).

    My comment is in regards to intellectually honest atheist vs a luke warm Christian is from Rev 3:15-15…

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  9. It’s interesting reading through most of the comments here – I question how many people have truly met an atheist vs just readying about them on the internet.

    I do believe many atheists just don’t think too deeply on the subject of god, just as many don’t think too deeply on the subject of the flying spaghetti monster. They have no reason to believe the FSM exists, so they therefore have no reason to put forth a proof for his lack of existence. The same goes for god – I think in many non-believers eyes it’s odd to disprove a belief that started with a goat-herder/carpenter (odd, as I don’t see too many wooden houses in the deserts of Isreal) thousands of years ago. I think atheism is the result of internal thought processes the develop slowly over time. It’s not sitting down with a pen and paper and writing out the pro’s and con’s and then deciding, that’s it, I don’t believe. I think this upsets the religious as they believe so dearly in it and often get offended that someone could think differently.

    But reading through the comments on this page, I think I’m gonna have to redefine myself – I’m a poly-atheist – there are many gods I don’t believe in (to be specific, all of them, though admittedly, this conviction does waiver at times)

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  10. Whatever the origins of the word, atheism has, over time, come to encompass more than the positive belief in the non-existence of a god or gods. Consequently, descriptive qualifiers such as “weak” and “strong”, “implicit” and “explicit”, etc, have developed as a way to practically separate the two main meanings. This is not an attempt to redefine a term in order to lessen argumentative burden, but is instead indicative of etymological adaptation to contemporary usage (which itself suggests that there is no more appropriate word at this time).

    I disagree with the accuracy of (amongst others) the qualifiers “objective” and “subjective” (probably, if I am not mistaken, influenced by Craig’s “psychological condition” remark). While I do suggest that, in a broad sense, cognitively able human beings who possess no god-belief are atheists whether they have encountered the notion of a god or not, (informed) “weak” atheism is no more subjective than “strong” atheism or any theistic position — all are states of belief about reality, which imply subjectivity. Strong atheism or theism may make claims about objective reality, but ultimately those claims are made in order to justify subjective positions.

    Some confuse agnosticism with weak atheism. The two terms are mutually exclusive — agnosticism deals with knowledge; theism and atheism, as stated, deal with belief — and as such, one person may be an agnostic (weak) atheist, or agnostic (strong) atheist, where the former lacks the belief in a god and holds that one cannot know if that god exists while the latter believes in the non-existence of a god and holds that one cannot possess knowledge of such. On the other hand, an atheist (of any variant) may argue that knowledge of the existence of a god is indeed possible. But atheism in and of itself has nothing to say about the possibility of knowledge and this refutes the claims that agnosticism is a necessary corollary of or basis for atheism. Likewise, theism is equally independent of agnosticism. This mutual exclusivity supports my position that the word “agnostic” is an inappropriate substitution for “weak atheist”.

    As a strong atheist, one may or may not have sound arguments for believing in the non existence of a deity. As a weak atheist, one may or may not have reasons for finding the theist’s arguments compelling.

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