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

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

  1. I think a common misconception about atheists is that they are hostile towards people of faith. I always think, an atheist is not an “anti-theist”. The word “atheist” basically means “without God”. Many atheists simply live their lives in peace without factoring a higher power in the equation, but respect other’s rights to believe as they choose. As there are some religious people who push their beliefs on others and are intolerant, there certainly are atheists who are too, but as there are plenty of religious people who preach love and tolerance, the majority of secular people like myself do so too. Much of the secular community is highly liberal and politically correct, but a few, like me, have secular reasons for agreeing with many conservatives who are religious.


    1. It’s not a common misconception, since I cited the Stanford dictionary of philosophy for the formal definition. So, the misconception would be among popular atheists, whereas I’m operating at the professional, academic level of philosophy.
      Answer me this please:
      Do you know that God does not exist?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think the burden of proof rests on the one who makes the claim, in this case: God exists. One can argue that none of us could ever know for sure whether or not God exists if He has the power to simply decide not to give us a definitive answer one way or the other. I think one cannot claim he does in fact exit without any solid evidence, but perhaps he could exist and just not have made His presence known, but we still would have no ground for claiming he does exist based off of zero evidence. The most honest answer would be to simply say “we don’t know”. I believe there is an answer as to whether or not God exists, we just don’t know the true answer. Technically, you would be justified in calling me agnostic, rather than a strict literal “atheist”, but I identify as atheist as I lean towards the conclusion God does not exist if I had to make my guess. A lesser thought of question, if a higher power does exist, how can we know specifically it is the Christian interpretation of what this being is. It is one thing to say, a higher power could exist, and we have no way to definitively disprove it. Fair enough. But I think it takes a far greater burden of proof to prove it is specifically the Christian god, and not another being that is one of another religion’s, or something none of us have ever even thought of. My question is, how do you know he does exist? Is it simply faith alone, or something else, specifically, to support that “God” is the god of the Christians? You claim God does exist, so the burden of proof is on you and your side of this debate, but that is my answer to your question. I think the most honest answer anyone can give is “I don’t know”.

        Look, I didn’t come to your blog to “convert” you, or debate your personal religious beliefs, I appreciate the stand you take against the radical liberal culture and PC garbage. Keep writing about the detrimental effects of the liberal agenda! We need all the allies we can get as conservatives, secular or religious. I’m a big fan 🙂


        1. Yes thank you for answering the question. That would make you an agnostic. And at that point I would just come into you the list of evidences that I usually put forward for theism. Thank you for your response.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. You’re welcome, and note I meant no hostility in my answer to you. I have had experiences where others interpreted my reasoning as a personal attack. As I said though, I’m a big fan of your blog and that you stand up for reason rather than liberal hysteria!


        2. I think no matter what worldview a person has, he or she has a responsibility to account for evidence, especially scientific evidence in his or he beliefs. For example, the evidence for cosmic fine-tuning for intelligent embodied agents.

          No Christian expects a non-Christian to become a Christian by blind faith. We think that if any person looks at reality squarely, then they would become a Christian freely, in their own time.

          Here’s an example of something that I think everyone should be curious about:

          And that’s Cambridge University Press, a very prestigious academic press. I’d like everyone, including Christians and non-Christians, to not say “we don’t know” until they first take a look at what we do know. We certainly know some very interesting things about the universe from science, and each person should be responsible about freely accommodating what we do know in his or her worldview in his or her own time.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. You are right. You make a great point. We should look at what we do know instead of passively not knowing or caring. I certainly find the question fascinating and want an answer, though I think we may never truly have it. I personally identify as an atheist or more broadly, “secular” as I came to those conclusions through scientific and historical evidence through mainstream academic sources. As for cosmic fine tuning and evidence of design in biology, a powerful being could have done that, but why would it be Christian, specifically? To be “Christian”, designing the cosmos and life is not enough. Other gods did that too, according to other beliefs. Proving Christianity is different from proving the existence of a god. Christianity has very specific beliefs, for example, in the Nicene Creed, that need specific evidence to support those assertions independent of proving the existence of a god in general. Other religions also have that extra-burden of proof in addition to claiming a higher power, or powers exist. If you are a Christian because you have specific evidence to back it up, then fine. As long as you think for yourself… Thanks for humoring me! I know I didn’t mean to engage you in this for this far!

            Liked by 1 person

          2. I am fine engaging with you and I’m glad we agree on so many things. I’m only arguing for a Creator and Designer with scientific evidence like the Big Bang and the fine-tuning. To go to Christianity in particular, I’d make a historical case like Dr. Craig does in the debate I posted between him and Dr. James Crossley, who is an atheist historian. You’re right to say that the scientific evidence I cite is not enough to get you to Christianity.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree I tend to ignore an atheist that uses a silly view like that. They tend to be ones that troll various sites for fun.

    I ignore them and will brush them off by stating I lack a belief in the spontaneous generation of life. Because that has never been done in a lab and is called quackery in science. It never makes an extreme one change their view or anything like that so I know it is ineffective.

    But people that will not have a rational conversation with facts is not worth the time. Maybe one day if they become reasonable you can talk to them then. But till then wait till God’s timing


  3. Hmmmmmm…..

    “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.

    So if we can be pretty sure a vegetable “lacks a belief in God”, then (logically) an atheist is a vegetable?


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