Is Atheism a Lack of Belief?


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by Rob Lundberg

How do you respond to the challenge from the ‘popular atheist’ who says that “atheism is a lack of belief?”  As we look at this question, I would like to get to the real issue of the matter. The first time that I really encountered this “definition” was a few years ago at the Reason Rally up in the DC Mall back in 2012. I do not usually ask an atheist define what they mean by “atheism” lately, because I ask them different questions to find out where their starting points on metaphysics and epistemology are coming from.

But a while back, I had a conversation with two young skeptics who defined their “brand of atheism” as a lack of belief. A lack of belief of what, was my question to them.  This is what I would like address in this posting.

Two Problems with the Re-definition.

 

In past postings, I have defined atheism as the philosophical position that denies the reality of the God of theism or other divine beings.  I have also explained that atheism is a worldview. For most of us, these concepts are pretty clear, but they are sometimes debated by those who hold to self defined views of atheism.

However, when someone says that atheism is “a lack of belief,” we must not let them stop there. I try to be quick with a follow up on that stunted definition with, “a lack of belief in what?” Some, like the two young high school guys at the Reason Rally wanted to hold to “a lack of belief,” to which I replied, “do you really believe that?” They said, “yes” and then caught themselves. But let’s take this re-definition a little further.

Austin Cline of the Atheism channel on About.com puts the “object” on the “lack of belief” by stating that atheism is simply the absence of belief in gods. One other atheist has said that “atheism is simply the absence of belief in God.”

The first problem is that if atheism is a lack of belief in God, there is an entailing contradiction. This contradiction can be exposed by question. “Is the existence of God logically compatible with a lack of  belief in God?”  In other words, is it possible for God to exist, and there still be a lack of belief in God?”

The answer to this question is obviously toward the “yes.”  Why is it “yes”? The answer is toward the affirmative, because “a lack of belief” has nothing to do with the possibility of God’s existence. Therefore it follows that atheism and theism are two world views that are incompatible with one another.  But there is another problem.

This definition of atheism being a “lack of belief in God or gods” is in conflict with the standard views of atheism. To give you a couple of examples, in the article on “atheism” Paul Edwards’ Encyclopedia of Philosophy states,

According to the most usual definition, an atheist is a person who maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence ‘God exists’ expresses a false proposition . . .  On our definition, an atheist, is a person who rejects belief in God, regardless of whether or not the reason for the rejection is the claim that “God exists” expresses a false proposition.”[1]

Then there is Ernest Nagel’s statement in his “Philosophical Concepts of Atheism” in Critiques of God, he states the following, “Atheism is not to be identified with sheer unbelief, or disbelief in some particular creed of some religious group. Thus, a who has received no religious instruction and has never heard about God is not an atheist – for he is not denying any theistic claims.“[2]

Looking at these two problems whereby we have a logical problem and two entries, from two prominent atheistic sources, it is clear that the re-definition of atheism being a “lack of belief in God” does not work for those who are serious atheists. Those that hold to the re-definition are not pushing  atheism in the formal sense of the definition. They are pushing for an anti-theistic position, and are not true atheists, according to Nagel.

Conclusion.

I hope that after perusing this post, you have a clearer understanding that the re-definition of atheism, being a lack of belief in God, is problematic and has an answer that is easy to use. Despite this popular re-definition, we can truly understand that it does not negate God’s existence. In fact, it does not even touch the logical possibility of God’s existence. The anti-theist is going to have to do a better job in attacking Christian theism with better arguments.[3] However I don’t think we will see that happening any time soon.[4]

Notes

[1] Paul Edwards ed. in chief, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1967): s.v. “Atheism,” 175.  

[2] Thomas Nagel, “Philosophical Concepts of Atheism” in Critiques of God: Making a Case Against Belief in God, Peter A. Angeles, ed., pp. 4-5.

[3] The view or belief that God, is understood as one infinite, all powerful, all knowing, completely good Being who exists, and is the creator of the universe.

[4] This is not a comment to ridicule the worldview of atheism. If we are willing to listen to what they have to say, it will be able to pick out the problems with their complaints about religion in general and Christianity in particular.

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