Defining Atheism

Okay, so I was asked about this topic and it’s one better handled where I have more character space than Twitter. 🙂

So, what exactly does atheism mean, and what should it mean? The former question is a little variable (just the nature of language really), but there are more reasonable answers to give, even if there are no definitive, “correct” answers. Whenever this topic comes up, many atheists that run the argument seem to think that this should be known by everyone. “The ‘a’ nullifies the ‘theism’, don’t you see, because it refers to those lacking belief in gods?”, they’ll say (or something like that). The problem here is that they are, sometimes consciously (I think) and other times not, just falling for a trick of language. They’re conflating the the ambiguity in the English language between “don’t believe” (in this case meaning “not affirming as true”) and “believe to be false”. For example, if someone asks me “Do you believe in Santa Claus?”, I think it’s fairly obvious to everyone that when I respond “No, I don’t believe in Santa Claus.” that I mean the proposition “Santa Claus exists” is false, or more likely false than true. Whereas in other situations, such as if asked “Is person X a good person?”, it would be ridiculous to assume that if I refuse to answer “Yes” to the question that I’m saying they’re not a good person. I just don’t know which is the case, so I abstain from going either way, and this is EXACTLY what “lackatheists” are notorious for claiming: That is you don’t believe “God(s) exists” then you are an atheist.

Now, it’s clear to me from everyday interaction with theists on this topic (and just experience in life in general) that when people refer to “atheists”, they’re NOT referring to those who merely “lack belief”, because they don’t go around calling dogs and babies atheists (as some of these “lack of belief” atheists often do, at least for babies); in addition, this is the general sort of definition use by professional philosophers in the Great Debate. This is because the usual conception of the belief spectrum being referenced here is:


With the theist and atheist giving a yes and no, respectively, concerning the existence of God, andnthenagnostics believing neither position is epistemically justifiable. So, it’s perfectly fine for these lack of belief people to go with their preferred definition, but this causes several issues. Firstly, they remove themselves from the conversation inadvertently. Why is this? Well, given that (as far as I believe) we use words as placeholders to convey ideas/concepts to other people, it doesn’t really matter in and of itself what sound or characters we use, so long as our recipients get what we’re trying to convey. So when you guys use this atheism as “lack of belief”, you guys are ignoring the question when asked to justify your atheism. They’re not asking why you merely lack belief, but why you believe it is more likely that gods don’t exist. If you reject their definition, then they can merely make up a new word to refer to that position of going beyond lacking belief. William Lane Craig has made this point before by pointing out that then he’d just ask people who are, quote, “Shmatheists – that is, people who believe gods don’t exist – why they believe gods don’t exist?” And this makes sense, it’s not a trick. If you don’t fit the definition of the word people are using because YOU mean something else by the word, then they’ll simply use another word not in contention to ask their question. If by “red” you mean what I mean by “green”, I’m going to alter my terminology in response so that the conversation is sensible.

Secondly, there’s the issue of coherence. One favorite of these lack of believers is to say that they’re “agnostic atheists” or (rarely) gnostic atheists, meaning they “don’t claim to know, don’t believe” and “know, don’t believe”, respectively, regarding the existence of gods. But don’t you guys see the immediate contradiction here? You guys are saying that the ONLY thing atheism is, is a lack of belief and hence is an either/or situation, but then you’re modulating your atheism with modifiers you intend to denote degrees of difference, which is a clear contradiction. After all, you guys say that you’re either a theist or you lack belief and hence are an atheist. This demonstrates another shortcoming of this definition, I think, which the standard and philosophical definitions maintain easily, as it allows for one to have degrees of belief and disbelief not conflict with the definitions themselves.

My own preferred definite of atheism would be anything along the lines of the following:

“An atheist is one who believes the existence of gods is less probable to be the case (lesser probability than 0.5 on a 0 to 1 scale) than their existence.”

Lastly, some atheists are motivated by or claim that this lack of belief definition nets them some epistemic advantage, since they’re not the ones moving from some default or null position. Well, this is silly. Once you’ve been acquainted with the usual meaning of the word God,as well as the ways by which people try to argue for or against is existence, to claim that you still merely lack belief (because this is what you mean by “atheism”) is to say that you haven’t been affected by the arguments either way, which is a very strange claim indeed, unless you’re merely affirming agnosticism.

Anyway, those are my general thoughts on this topic. Leaves your comments below. Peace 🙂


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