Is the definition of atheism “a lack of belief in God”?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

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

‘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.


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,


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.

Related posts

8 thoughts on “Is the definition of atheism “a lack of belief in God”?”

  1. What about the agnostic atheists who say Christians cannot know whether God exists? Such atheists will admit that God could possibly exist, but they deny that Christians have any rational reason for believing in God.

    If you ask such an atheist why he’s so sure there’s no evidence for God, the atheist will simply say he is not sure. He’s just a seeker who has not yet found anything.

    Christians should interact with this kind of atheist for two reasons:

    1) You can have a fruitful argument about the objective evidence for God, and this can help Christians understand or deepen their faith.

    2) As a bonus, there’s always the chance that the Christian will persuade such an atheist to convert. You can provide the evidence this atheist has missed.


    1. That’s an ornery agnostic, as opposed to an ordinary agnostic. Ornery agnostics have a burden of proof to argue how they know that nothing can be known by Christians about God.

      I agree… ornery agnostics do deserve a response, because they are making and defending a claim to know something. I like them.


  2. The last point you made was spot on. There is an individual on the CARM web site that goes by Antitheist and he is about the most obnoxious atheist. Always claiming that we have the burden of proof.

    I asked him to give reasons for his atheism, I am still waiting for a response.

    They are too busy trying to refute all that we say while giving no evidence or at the very least, adequate reasons for their disbelief.

    Matt Slick of CARM has posted 31 questions to ask the atheist in a conversation. Antitheist responded with a video on the patheos web site. His responses are also transcribed. If you read them, you can see how he contradicts himself and I asked him directly about some of his responses. Again, I never got answer.

    At this point, I think he blocked me. The point is, when we are direct, they tend to get KB shy or use semantic rope-a-dope tricks to get out of making a positive claim about atheism. The ones I have encountered seem to think they are above the rules of argumentation, that they have no reason to give reasons.

    This was an outstanding post.


  3. As a former Anti-theist/atheist/agnostic my intellectual shift from my original view to a theistic/christian worldview was not from a debate, or even an examination of the evidence. My shift came from friends with theistic worldviews who were willing to challenge my thoughts/comments (and rolling eyes) but were still my friends at the end of the day.
    We shared many of the same views on morality , values and personal interests just not on God. It wasnt until one of my good friends got sick of my derrogatory statements towards theism and actually challenged me to support my beliefs. After my conversion one of my first thoughts was to contact those who had previously challenged my views and were even willing to argue about it, talk about my conversion and express my interest in further speaking about views on God. A complete 180.
    What I can note is that whether or not you win a debate or even aide in a conversion, simply speaking your views(respectfuly) sticking to your guns and being willing to be embarassed or alienated for your religious views you can unknowlingly be planting seeds in someone who is actually honest enough to examine the claims and evidences to support them at a later time, not just say “No” in the moment out sheer stuborness.


  4. Great post. The amount of atheists that I talk to on Twitter belch this same cowardly phrase over and over again. I keep pointing out that they are philosophical cowards that love to criticise but want the luxury to not have their views criticised.

    It is pointless and futile.
    A complete waste of time.


  5. Gnostic atheists are those who claim that they know for a fact that there is no God. Agnostic atheists (I consider myself this) are not claiming that we are knowledgeable enough to say that we can know for a fact there is no God but we see no compelling evidence for his existence and thus do not believe in him personally


  6. Such a definition cannot be considered an intellectual or rational position. A chair ‘lacks a belief in God,’ therefore a chair must be an atheist. Skepticism is a neutral, intellectual position and a chair can’t be a skeptic for that very reason; a chair can’t take an intellectual position.
    Further, the agnostic who claims there isn’t enough evidence to ascertain the existence of God is expressing a belief they have in God: that there isn’t enough evidence. If one truly lacks any belief in some topic X, then one is incapable of having a real conversation or debate about X. All one can do is perhaps ask questions about X until some beliefs take hold that one can talk about and engage with. And yet these people who ‘lack belief in God’ seem to think they can have such conversations about God.
    It’s a lazy linguistic trick to spare themselves the burden of proof but it actually undermines their position.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s