Saturday, September 22, 2012

Is Atheism Simply 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/belief, 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/believe 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,
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/believe and what reasons and evidence they have to justify their claims. 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. This then opens the debate up to intelligent dialogue between two sides each with arguments and evidence to support their claims or their beliefs.

Yes it is possible to be an atheist and just lack a belief in god or gods due to a lack of evidence. However, once one starts to use evidences and arguments to support the notion that it is more likely a god or gods do not exist; then they have gone one step further than a simple lack of belief.


  1. "Stanford University is one of the top 5 universities in the United States, so that’s a solid definition."

    That's a very strange sort of argument from authority. Also, an Encyclopedia of Philosophy may not reflect popular use, and I'd say what you need to do is find out what people who use the term mean by it, especially atheists. Which is why it's ridiculous to ask someone like Craig, who isn't an atheist. Notice he's arrogant enough to tell atheists what their own description means, and you might have noted that he's using it to shift the burden of proof.

  2. Well when both sides make claims and assertions they take on a sort of burden of proof. If someone says, for example, that the universe isn't fine-tuned then they have made an assertion and therefore are required to back it up with proof.

    Like I said in the article atheism can mean simply a lack of belief, but it doesn't always mean a lack of belief.

  3. Why? If I don't believe in God, of course I'm going to argue that it's more likely that a god doesn't exist. This doesn't mean I'm claiming "there is no god" - it simply means I don't believe in god due to a lack of evidence... with a lack of evidence demonstrating the unlikeliness of a god (at least regarding the theistic god to which there should be plenty of evidence for supporting the claim "a personal god does exist").

    Most modernized dictionaries use what I, and other atheists, would consider to be the more accurate and modern definition. Here are the definitions as given by the four most-used dictionaries, as well as Wikipedia: a person who does not believe in God or gods

    Merriam Webster: one who believes that there is no deity.

    Oxford Dictionary: a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.

    Cambridge Dictionary: someone who believes that God or gods do not exist.

    Wikipedia: Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist.

    The job of words is to carry meaning. And if self-defining atheists consider "atheist" to mean "a lack of belief in god" then that's what it means. To act as though they are claiming there is no god is to force an assertion on them that they aren't even asserting.

  4. Right so if you argue it's more likely God doesn't exist that is probably because you not only lack a belief in God but because you believe he doesn't exist at all. Gnosticism/Agnosticism are claims to knowledge; I know there is a God vs. I don't know if there is a God. Whereas, Theism/Atheism used to be a positions of belief; I believe a God exists vs. I do not believe a god exists. Now-a-days theists still use the term theism to mean "I believe a God exists while atheists have redefined the meaning to simply mean "a lack of belief in a god or gods" instead of the old meaning "I do not believe a god or gods exist." I don't know if they truly only lack a belief or if they are just labelling themselves in that manner to appear more rational than theists. It relieves atheists of the burden of making a claim that they don't know the answer to for certain (although that should be gnosticism/agnosticism's job).

    I mean you just said "if I don't believe in God of course I'm going to argue that a God doesn't exist" doesn't that mean you believe God doesn't exist? I mean I lack a belief in Flying Spaghetti Monster and I also go one step further and then say I also do not believe in his existence.

    You ask why have they gone further than a simple lack of belief? Because they are not only lacking that belief due to a lack of evidence but they are making positive assertions with regards to God's existence. For example, science, history, philosophy, all can be used to make reasonable arguments against the existence of God (at least the popular Christian God) in doing so they've stepped out from the simple lack of belief to believing this God does not exist.

    Part of my question in all this is why can't atheists just admit that while they lack a belief in God, based on lack of evidence, they also do not believe a God exists, based on the evidence available. What's wrong with saying "I do not believe in God's existence." I've read the arguments for and against God and while we can for sure say we can't know whether or not He exists - what's wrong with saying "I don't know for sure - but I do not believe He exists."

  5. Also you say, "To act as though they are claiming there is no god is to force an assertion on them that they aren't even asserting."

    But I see atheists all the time equate belief in God to belief in Santa, the Easter Bunny and fairytale characters. I would be willing to bet they don't just lack a belief in the Easter Bunny but also do not believe in his existence based on a lack of evidence + evidence to the contrary.

    In arguing against God's existence they are claiming he does not exist. It's implied in the argument.

  6. We're getting into all sorts of silly wordplay here.

    I lack a belief in god and I don't believe god exists. But do you not see how that's a large step away from me asserting, with conviction, that "god does not exist".

    Essentially, it boils down to the burden of proof. I'm not going to assume the burden of proof for something that I don't believe exists. I'm not going to argue that a god doesn't exist because it would be impossible for me to prove such a thing. I don't believe in god because I lack a belief in god, not because I am convicted that there's no possible way a god could exist.

    It would be like me telling you "I can hold my breath for 10 hours". You might say "nope", "I don't believe you can", "I don't think you can"... etc. You might even deep down know that I cannot. But there's no reason for you to have the burden of proof to demonstrate that I cannot hold my breath for 10 hours. If I want to say I can then it is up to me to show that I can. And if theists want to say there's a personal god, then it's up to then to show that there's a personal god.

  7. So what I'm getting at is... William Lane Craig and other apologists use the argument you presented here to try and shift the burden of proof to the atheists. It's nonsense.

  8. Whoa we both came on here at the same time...crazy.

    Right, ok, so you lack a belief and don't believe he exists that is great. I posted on this topic because some of my atheist friends down here were saying that they only lack a belief but that they don't believe God doesn't exist because they can't prove he doesn't exist. My point is I don't think anyone has to say with conviction "God doesn't exist!" but at least admit that each person has a personal belief on the matter.

    It's good to hear you say you're not convicted there's no possible way a god could exist (even if you're 99% sure it's not a personal god...deism is calling your name my friend haha).

    So it seems we're not too far off of each other's positions. Though I'm going to disagree with the who has burden of proof statement - but just a little! Obviously it's up to the believer to supply the evidence for God's existence. The believer has the burden of proof for sure and I know you agree with that. Where I question the matter is when an atheist makes a positive assertion in an argument against God's existence, I think he is then taking on the burden of proof for his position on the matter. For example, if one were to say "A God can't exist because of all the evil and suffering in the world" then he has made a positive assertion and needs to show "Why" a God can't exist due to evil and suffering. So as far as trying to show God's existence the believer has full burden of proof on his shoulders, but I think when atheists make claims they shoulder their own sort of burden of proof on those matters - related to the whole "god topic."

  9. Well when both sides make positive assertions or claims on the matter they take on a burden of proof to defend their position.

    I think that's what WLC was getting at. Like in my previous example one can't just say "God can't exist because of all the evil!" and leave it at that.

  10. And you're right that if an atheist makes the assertion that god doesn't exist then he has the burden of proof... which is why I try to stay away from the assertion. I'll point out the nonsense in some mainstream theistic beliefs, and why it makes it unlikely to believe in that form of a god, but I try to stay away from the "god doesn't exist" angle even though I don't believe there's a god.

    So yeah... I think we're pretty close. Now we just need to agree that we're both reasonable atheists who accept the possibility of a deistic god even though we don't know what it would be... :)