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

Reasons given for answering "No"
  • Those who lack belief are called “Non-theists”

      The term non-theist already exists to denote individuals who merely lack belief in God.1 This is relevant because re-defining atheism to refer to a “lack of belief” would both make the term superfluous and, in addition to introducing mass academic confusion, would rudely inconvenience real atheists. After all, whereas they had always been able to simply say “I'm an atheist” in the past, every atheist would now always 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).2 Moreover, it seems clearly 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

      In academic settings (peer review etc.), atheism is consistently understood as the belief that God does not exist. For example, in specifically contrasting it with the “lack of belief,”

      The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy: “[Atheism] denotes a belief that there is no God; this use has become the standard one.”

      Few dictionaries of philosophy even go so far as mention the non-standard “lack of belief” use, despite wide-spread use on the internet (especially 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 (widely used by Young Earth creationists, again, especially on YouTube). A few academic atheists have suggested changing the standard definition, but to no avail.1,2 Today, “The theist is commonly regarded as one who believes theism; the atheist believes atheism.”3

      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 and atheism are clearly contradictories. Yet, if they can be true or false, then they are both beliefs (or propositional stances). However, a “lack of belief” is not a belief or propositional stance; it cannot be true or false.1 So, on the revisionist model, while there can be arguments against the truth of theism, there suddenly cannot be arguments against atheism (i.e. by definitional fiat, the revisionist sets up “atheism” such that it cannot even be refuted). This seems straightforwardly odd, especially since there is a rich history of proffering arguments supporting “atheism” (by that name).

      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

      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 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. Right now, things are efficient: One simply says whether they are a theist, atheist, or agnostic. Simple.2

      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 reasonable 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. 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.”
  • Reasons given for answering "Yes"
  • Etymologicially, it yields “not theism”

      The Greek roots of “atheism” yield “not theism.”1 [See response]2

      But so what if that were true? Such an argument commits the “root fallacy”; a words meaning is simply 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. By way of response, however, the ‘a’ is best understood to negate God, rather than belief in God (e.g. See the 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. 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”

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

      But, so what if that's true? Couldn't people 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.