Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Is Atheism a Lack of Belief? Certainly Not!

by Rob Lundberg

How do you respond to the challenge from the "popular atheist," who says "atheism is a lack of belief?" As we look at this question, I want to get to the real issue of matter. The first time that I really encountered this "definition" was a couple of years ago at the Reason Rally up at the DC Mall (2012).  

One of the several conversations we had was with two young "skeptics" who defined their atheism as a "lack of belief." But there is a problem with this re-definition of atheism. What is the problem?

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 also a worldview. For most of us, these concepts are pretty clear.

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 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.


I hope in this posting, you have a clearer understanding that the re-definition of atheism, being a lack of belief in God, is problematic and can be given an answer. Despite the re-definition, it does not negate God's existence. In fact, it does not touch the logical possibility of God's existence. The anti-theist is going to have to do a better job in attacking Christian theism.[3]


[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.  

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