Defining Atheism: Is it just a “lack of belief” in God?

  • Clarifying the question

    Two man hand out together, with the atheist A symbol above them.

    Some atheist figureheads—notably Matt Dillahunty—have promoted the idea that, in addition to the word “non-theist”, the word “atheist” is also properly defined as: a person who lacks belief in God(s). This “lack of belief” definition would include agnostics under the definition of atheist, and so would crowd out defining atheism as the positive belief that God does not exist. (This community suggests calling a positive belief in God's non-existence, “strong atheism”). At least as far as there can be an answer to the question of whether a term is being used properly, is this community correct?

  • Academic sources unanimously answer “NO”

    It might come down to the level of precision users want. In academic settings, where precision is aimed for, the answer is unanimous:

    • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011): “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.” [Atheism and Agnosticism, Online]
    • Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007), p. 88: “In its broadest sense atheism, from the Greek a (‘without’) and theos (‘deity’), standardly refers to the denial of the existence of any god or gods.”
    • Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2nd ed. (2006), p.358 [in vol. 1 of 10]: “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. In contrast, an agnostic maintains that it is not known or cannot be known whether there is a God”
    • Oxford Companion to Philosophy, New Ed. (2005), p. 65: “Atheism is ostensibly the doctrine that there is no God. Some atheists support this claim by arguments. But these arguments are usually directed against the Christian concept of God, ... Agnosticism may be strictly personal and confessional—‘I have no firm belief about God’—or it may be the more ambitious claim that no one ought to have a positive belief for or against the divine existence.”
    • Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy (2004), p. 530: “The belief that God – especially a personal, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God – does not exist.”
    • Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998), entry by William Rowe: “As commonly understood, atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. So an atheist is someone who disbelieves in God, whereas a theist is someone who believes in God. … the common use of ‘atheism’ to mean disbelief in God is so thoroughly entrenched, we will follow it. We may use the term ‘non-theist’ to characterize the position of the negative atheist.”
“No, after all…
  • Those who lack belief are called “Non-theists”

    A man puts his hands on his head, which is a bunch of swirls representing confusion.

    The term “non-theist” already exists to denote individuals who merely lack belief in God.1 This is relevant for three reasons.

    • First, re-defining atheism to refer to a “lack of belief” would make the term “non-theist” superfluous.
    • Second, individuals wanting to efficiently communicate their position of disbelief in God have always been able to simply say “I'm an atheist” in the past, just as theists could always say “I'm a theist”. All who disbelieve in God and want to be open about their belief in discourse would now be required to say or write-out “positive atheism” and say “I'm a positive atheist”, which just seems awkward and unnecessarily burdensome given how frequently the term is used in some disciplines and conversations.2
    • Third, it seems more appropriate to call babies, cats etc. “non-theists”, rather than “atheists”.3
    1. Charles Taliaferro, Paul Draper, Philip Quinn: “…atheistic and other non-theistic perspectives.” (Emphasis added)[A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed. eds. Taliaferro, Draper, Quinn (Blackwell, 2010), 1.]
      Graham Oppy: “…by theist and non-theist alike” [Arguing about Gods (Cambridge, 2009), 17.]
      Nicholas Everitt: “…the challenge… is anyway not one which the non-theist needs to meet, because it is one which the theist cannot raise without begging the question” [The Non-Existence of God (Routledge, 2003), 29.]
      William Rowe: “We (theist and non-theist) must each…” [William L. Rowe on Philosophy of Religion (Ashgate, 2007), 392.]
      Kevin Timpe: “…most moral theorists (theist or non-theist) would agree” [Arguing About Religion (Routledge, 2009), 191.]
      Michael Bergmann: “…won't be of much help in offering a theistic argument that will be persuasive to a non-theist” [The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology eds. Flint and Rea (Oxford, 2011), 390.]
      Jake Chandler and Victora Larrison: “Suppose there were four experts, two theist and two non-theist…” [Probability in the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford, 2012), 218.]
    2. Many philosophy of religion books exhibit a dense usage of the terms atheist/atheism. One wonders how much thicker these books would suddenly (and needlessly) become, and how much more awkwardly they would read.
    3. This is a point that has been recently popularized by William Lane Craig. For example, “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.” [“Definition of Atheism” at]. (As a purely comical side-note: The average atheist I.Q. (much boasted of) would drop rapidly if pets and inanimate objects were included in their number.)
  • In academia, atheism is a belief

    A professor stands in front of a gigantic chalkboard with a crowd of students watching.

    In academic settings (peer review etc.), atheism is consistently understood as the belief that God does not exist.

    After all, consider…

    • The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy: “[Atheism] denotes a belief that there is no God; this use has become the standard one.” Notice how it specifically excludes the non-theist definition as being standard.
    • However, few dictionaries of philosophy even mention the non-standard “lack of belief” use, despite wide-spread use by some communities on the internet and YouTube. (This is presumably for the same reason most biology dictionaries do not mention definitions of evolution which include the origin of the Universe or first life—despite widespread use of this definition by Young Earth creationists online.)
    • A few academic atheists have suggested changing the standard definition to mean non-theist, but to no avail.1, 2 Today still, “The theist is commonly regarded as one who believes theism; the atheist believes atheism.”3

    This is relevant both for lay conversations using the term and for academic venues.
    Relevance for lay discussions: In most conversations about God's existence, the level of precision would benefit from reflecting academic discourse because the terminology as established has been established this way for a reason. (See above.)
    Relevance for academic discussions: In academic conversations about God, shifting the meaning would introduce new frustrations and confusion for academics. Students and professionals who are reading and quoting peer-reviewed material would need to be very sensitive to the sudden grand shift in meaning, and therefore to the dating of the source they are quoting. (Is this usage instance pre-shift or post-shift?) Likely necessary would be swaths of footnotes to elucidate for readers the meaning of atheism as used in this or that quote.

    1. Antony Flew: “…we need to give a new and much more comprehensive meaning to the term ‘atheist.’ Whereas it is currently construed as referring to a person who positively disbelieves that there is an object corresponding to what is thus tacitly taken to be a or the legitimate concept of God, I would now urge that the word be hereafter understood not positively but negatively. … In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the nonexistence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist.” [The Presumption of Atheism (1984)]
      Michael Martin: “If you look up 'atheism' in a dictionary, you will find it defined as the belief that there is no God.”)
      Kai Neilson: “more adequate characterization of atheism consists in the more complex claim that to be an atheist is to be someone who rejects belief in God" [Encyclopædia Britannica (2011)][Kai nevertheless confesses that the standard definition is “the critique and denial of metaphysical beliefs in God or spiritual beings. As such, it is usually distinguished from theism, which affirms the reality of the divine and often seeks to demonstrate its existence. Atheism is also distinguished from agnosticism, which leaves open the question whether there is a god or not, professing to find the questions unanswered or unanswerable.”]
      Finally, we read in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry by Matt McCormick “The term ‘atheist’ describes a person who does not believe that God or a divine being exists.” E-mail correspondence with McCormick quickly revealed his awareness however that “You're right--if you ask philosophers casually, they will say ‘atheist’ and mean 'positive atheist.'” [dated 6/7/10]; it's perhaps worth nothing that McCormick actively runs a blog titled “Atheism: Proving the Negative.”
    2. Ostensibly, as a dialectical tactic, so-called “New Atheists” especially are pushing the re-definition of the term in order to shift from themselves any burden of proof for their genuine belief that God does not exist. After all…
      Jordan Howard Sobel: (approvingly citing Shalkowski [1989]) “…if one takes up the task of providing sound arguments for atheism, formidable difficulties arise… It is much easier to punch holes in theistic arguments … than to actually argue for [the] truth [of atheism]” [Logic and Theism: Arguments For and Against Beliefs in God (Cambridge, 2009), 401.]
    3. John Schellenberg, "The Hiddenness Argument for Atheism”: Online
  • If theism is true, then atheism is false

    Theism (as classically defined) and atheism are contradictories, such that if theism is true, then atheism is false (and vice versa).

    After all…

    • Atheism is defined in terms of theism (as its opposing view).
    • These terms are best seen as being about God's existence and not about a person's psychological state.

    This is relevant because on the revisionist definition, “atheism” is a non-view statement about a cognizers psychological state. So ultimately “atheism” cannot be false and doesn't even attempt to answer the question of whether God exists.1 As explained by a prominent atheist (Paul Draper) in,

    The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “‘Atheism’ is typically defined in terms of ‘theism’. Theism, in turn, is best understood as a proposition—something that is either true or false. It is often defined as ‘the belief that God exists’, but here ‘belief’ means ‘something believed’. It refers to the propositional content of belief, not to the attitude or psychological state of believing. This is why it makes sense to say that theism is true or false and to argue for or against theism. If, however, ‘atheism’ is defined in terms of theism and theism is the proposition that God exists and not the psychological condition of believing that there is a God, then it follows that atheism is not the absence of the psychological condition of believing that God exists (more on this below). The ‘a-’ in ‘atheism’ must be understood as negation instead of absence, as ‘not’ instead of ‘without’. Therefore, in philosophy at least, atheism should be construed as the proposition that God does not exist (or, more broadly, the proposition that there are no gods).”

    1. Note: It moreover seems prima facie awkward to suggest that so-called “positive atheism” can have truth-value while “atheism” simpliciter cannot.
  • “lack of belief” just ambiguates the term

    A guy scratching his head with a map in the other hand.

    The revisionist “lack of belief” definition of atheism is overtly ambiguous.

    After all, there would suddenly be two ways to be an “atheist,” by either…

    (a) Affirming the proposition <God does not exist>, or…
    (b) Withholding
    belief about it (traditionally called “agnosticism”).1

    This is relevant because the imprecise usage would in turn needlessly require interlocutors to spend extra time discerning which of those two remaining options apply, rather than the individual being straightforward about his position from the get-go. It also can lead to equivocating over so-called strong and weak atheism in discussions, which can be used in misleading ways2 Right now, things are efficient: One simply says whether they are a theist, atheist, or agnostic. Simple.3

    1. Louis P. Pojman: “It is a widely held belief that one can will to believe, disbelieve, and withhold belief concerning propositions.” [“Belief and Will.” Religious Studies Vol. 14, 1 (1978). Online at Cambridge Journals)
      Sven Ove Hansson: “In summary, there are three attitudes that a consistent believer can have with respect to a sentence p and its negation ~p. 1. Believe that p is true (belief, acceptance). 2. Believe that p is false (disbelief, rejection). 3. Neither believe that p is true nor that it is false (suspension of belief).” [A Textbook of Belief Dynamics (Kluwer Academic, 1999), 6.]
      Roderick Chisholm: “[There are] three basic epistemic attitudes that one may take towards a given proposition at any particular time: (1) one may believe or accept the proposition; (2) one may disbelieve the proposition, and this is the same thing as believing its negation; or (3) one may withhold or suspend belief -- that is to say, one may refrain from believing and refrain from disbelieving.”
      David Christensen: “One might quite reasonably want to avoid equating disbelief in P with belief in P's negation. In that case, one would naturally see discrete belief as a trinary notion, encompassing three distinct attitudes one might take toward a proposition: belief, disbelieve, and withholding judgment.” [Putting Logic in its Place: Formal Constraints on Rational Belief (Oxford, 2004), 14.]
      Nicholas Wolterstorff: “…of the propositions that we entertain, we not only believe some and disbelieve others; from some we withhold both belief and disbelief. We suspend judgment.” [Practices of Belief: Volume 2, Selected Essays, ed. by Cuneo (Cambridge, 2009), 68.]
    2. The attempt to re-define atheism for most Matt Dillahunty fans, for example, can be an unconscious trick to illegitimately reach the conclusion that stong atheism is true, while only having ever defended weak atheism. Strong atheists can try to put themselves in the more comfortable position of not having to defend their full-fledged belief in God's non-existence, while making the theist do all the work to defend his belief. Then in a final flourish, the conclusion of the dialogue is essentially “If you can't justify belief in God, then you ought to believe God does not exist.” Few of these rhetorical “atheists” conclude properly that, “therefore, you should not believe or disbelieve in God's existence (because your case fails and I didn't present a case for non-existence)”. Instead, without ever defending belief that God does not exist, they conclude “therefore, you should disbelieve in God until you have the evidence.” It's a bait and switch that promotes strong atheism without ever bringing it under the microscope.
    3. Side note: Virtually no one says they are philosophically certain about their theism or atheism, so internet atheists who oddly want to preface theism/atheism with ‘agnostic’ (for example, “agnostic atheist,” “agnostic theist”) to denote a lack of certainty are similarly just wasting time. If a philosopher ever feels the need to communicate the otherwise obvious fact that she is not philosophically certain about her position, she simply says "I'm an atheist, but I don't hold the belief with certainty.”
“Yes, after all…
  • Etymologicially, it yields “not theism”

    A man investigates a plants roots. The plants spouts an "A" on the top.

    The Greek roots of “atheism” yield “not theism.”1

    But wait,…

    • ...the “a-” can be a negation instead of absence (“not” instead of “without”).2
    • ...a words meaning is not bound up with its etymology.3
    1. See:
      Michael Martin: “In Greek ‘a’ means ‘without ’or ‘not’ and ‘theos’ means ‘god.’ From this standpoint an atheist would simply be someone without a belief in God… According to its Greek roots, then, atheism is a negative view, characterized by the absence of belief in God.” [The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge, 2007), 49.]
      Antony Flew: “I want the originally Greek prefix ‘a’ to be read in the same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is read in such other Greco-English words as ‘amoral,’ ‘atypical,’ and ‘asymmetrical’” [The Presumption of Atheism, in God, Freedom, and Immortality: A Critical Analysis (New York: Prometheus Books, 1984), 14].
    2. For example,

      • Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy 2nd ed.: “_(from Greek a-, ‘not’, and theos, _‘god), the view that there are no gods.” [ed. Audi (Cambridge, 1999), 59.] In the case of ‘amoral,’ ‘atypical,’ and ‘asymmetrical,’ the object being denied is not a belief but a thing. ‘Amoral’ is the lack of moral property, not a mere lack of belief in morality. ‘Atypical’ is the lack of something's being typical, not a lack of belief in what is typical. And ‘asymmetrical’ is a lack of symmetry, not a lack of belief in symmetry.

    3. To argue for a words meaning based on its etymology commits the so-called “root fallacy”. One need only spend a little time on to see how far off a words meaning can be from whatever is suggested by its etymology. For example, “goodbye” is a contraction of “God be with ye,” so any atheist proponent of this argument who knows the roots of this word and nevertheless uses it, by his own reasoning, is regularly affirming God's existence. But this is absurd.
      D.A. Carson: “…the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is, by the root or roots of a word.” [Exegetical Fallacies 2nd ed. (Baker Academic, 1996), 28.]
      James Barr (Semitic Languages and Literature professor at Oxford): “…the etymology of a word is not a statement about its meaning but about its history.” [The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford, 1961), 109.]
  • Everyday people mean “lack of belief”

    A man in front of a computer with a speech bubble and the YouTube logo inside.

    Several everyday people on the street understand “atheism” to denote a “lack of belief” in God.

    But wait,

    • The fact that Matt (etc.) have to “correct” people so often says otherwise.
    • Even if that were true, lay internet users etc. commonly understand a term to mean something that it does not actually mean. For example, “schizophrenia” is commonly, and yet mistakenly, understood to refer to multiple personality disorder.1
    1. Similarly, many opponents of “evolution” understand the term to denote not only a thesis about the origin of species, but also as an all-inclusive term incorporating the big bang and origin of life. Many of these individuals also commonly understand the term “theory” in science (as in “evolutionary theory”) to denote an overtly unsubstantiated/speculative claim. But, so what? This widespread use does not imply that the interpretations in question are equally legitimate understandings of what “evolution” and “theory” actually mean.
  • Dictionary xyz includes the “lack of belief” definition

    A man holding a book with a capital letter "a" and a lowercase "a".

    There are dictionaries which include a definition of atheism that is synonymous with “lack of belief” in God.

    For example,…

    This is relevant because if anything determines the meaning of a word (in the relevant context) it's the dictionary.

    But wait,

    • Any dictionary including both competing definitions does not establish one definition (lack of belief) over the other.
    • Modern dictionaries are descriptivist; they merely catalogue ways people use words regardless of how inane the usage is. Their various (and competing) definitions are often intolerable in academic or serious contexts like philosophy where precision and utility rule.1
    1. Often dictionaries will add the qualifier “INFORMAL” next to some words. For example, the Cambridge Dictionary on the definition of “literally” includes,

      “INFORMAL: used to emphasize what you are saying:” ... “INFORMAL: simply or just: e.g. Then you literally cut the sausage down the middle.” Many atheists are using “atheism” the sloppy quasi-informal way that some people use “literally”, a way that should not show up in rigorous conversation. (Side note: Some dictionaries, like the Cambridge Dictionary above, won’t even give the courtesy of mentioning the informal imprecise usage of “atheism” as a lack of belief. These dictionaries think it’s not even used enough to even be descriptive informally yet. (The Cambridge Dictionary simply says, “the belief that God does not exist”).

      Dennish Baron (Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois): “What dictionaries are, instead, are records of how some speakers and writers have used words. … This constant cherry-picking [between contradicting dictionaries] confirms that jurists do recognize dictionaries as fluid and context-bound, much like the words they define. The job of the lexicographer is not to give the law, or even to interpret it. Dictionaries don't exist to create meaning. Instead, they record the meanings assigned to words and phrases by speakers and writers, by professionals and amateurs, by lawyers and judges, by upright citizens and criminal defendants. These meanings are multiple and changeable, and reliance on dictionaries should always be instructive, never absolute.” article