Investigation in progress

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

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.

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

  1. Most atheists I’ve known fall into two categories: those who are atheists out of convenience, and those who are atheists as an act of rebellion against God.
    Atheists of the first kind live in environments that are hostile to religion in general and Christianity in particular. They are social climbers. They are very short termist and don’t care of what happens to them in the afterlife, as long as they get advantages in this life.
    Atheists of the second kind are not much different from Lucifer. They will not serve. They are angry with God for regarding their favorite sins as sins. Or they are just too proud. No amount of reasoning will convince them. Even if they see miracles, they will explain them away. Basically, they have chosen damnation. They have committed the one unforgivable sin, which is rejecting the salvation that Christ offers.

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  2. I don’t think a lot of “atheists” believe their own humanistic faith. If they truly didn’t believe in God and consider such a belief nonsensical, then there’s no reason to get to hostile and hateful at seeing others practicing the faith. Why would anyone be angry, or anything else for that matter, at something or someone who doesn’t exist?

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  3. In my own conversations with atheists, I’ve found that this particular objection has morphed into a more nuanced claim about the atheist’s own psychological state. What they’re usually saying is, “I’m not saying I can definitively prove that God doesn’t exist. I’m simply saying that I’ve not seen sufficient evidence to convince me that He does.”

    On the surface, this seems like a rather modest and reasonable claim on the part of the atheist. However, notice that the this is not a statement about external reality. It’s a claim about the atheist’s own psychological state. This is fair if it’s true, but we must remember that the measure of whether or not a claim is true is not whether or not any particular person or group of person’s is convinced. The question is what are the reasons for accepting or rejecting the truth proposition.

    For example, I could just as easily say, “I’m not convinced that the earth orbits the sun as I’ve not seen sufficient evidence that it does.” This claim could in principle be true (in my case it isn’t), but it’s neither a claim about the earth or the sun or what’s actually true. It’s merely a claim about my personal feelings on the matter, and no serious person should use my personal feelings on the matter as a means for judging the truth of the claim.

    Many people are unconvinced that Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 Presidential Election, that OJ Simpson murdered his ex-wife, or that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK, but pointing this out doesn’t actually say anything about what reasons there might be for accepting or rejecting each of these claims.

    If you’re going to assert that disbelief in God is more reasonable than belief, then you have a burden of proof just as the Theist does. I have no interest in debating your personal psychological state. If you’re unconvinced then you’re unconvinced and it’s not my job to try and convince you. What I’m interested in is what is actually most reasonable to believe.

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