By Jon Topping | September 19th, 2022
I’ve been a part of many discussions regarding the nature of atheism. Recently I had someone reject any notion of atheism being a belief, and the way he argued this was a demeaning request for Christians to look up the word “atheist” in the dictionary. In his mind, atheism is merely not believing in God, which is different from actively believing that God does not exist. However, this way of viewing atheism is actually not how most of academia has defined the term.
If you want to really dig deep into what a word means, you need scholarly articles, encyclopedias, and professional dictionaries (for example, there are whole dictionaries that focus only on specific philosophical terms). When looking at these academic sources, we find that “atheism” is typically understood as an active belief that there is no God or gods. Here are a few examples.
“Atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief”
– William L. Rowe, 2000
“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 [in the epistemological sense] maintains that it is not known or cannot be known whether there is a God, that is, whether the sentence “God exists” expresses a true proposition.”
– Encyclopedia of Philosophy
“[Atheism is] the view that there are no gods. A widely used sense denotes merely not believing in god and is consistent with agnosticism [in the psychological sense]. A stricter sense denotes a belief that there is no god; this use has become standard.”
– Louis Pojman, 2015
You’ll notice a few interesting things in these definitions. Firstly, atheism being an active belief in the lack of God is the standard use of the term. Secondly, the idea that atheism is merely a passive lack of belief is a relatively new idea that has become popular (I would argue it’s become popular among non-philosophers). Thirdly, this new way of looking at atheism is really just a description of agnosticism. An agnostic is a person who simply doesn’t know. They are merely admitting they lack the knowledge of such things as the existence of God. Surely, when someone declares themselves an atheist, they are saying more than merely “I don’t know”. They are affirming something, which is an active belief that God does not exist. If someone is really only saying that they merely lack a belief in God, and that they do not actively believe God doesn’t exist, then they are saying that they don’t have any beliefs regarding the existence of God. In this case, the appropriate term would be “agnostic”. Realistically, when a person tries this sort of new definition of atheism, what they’re almost always doing is avoiding the burden of proof. If they are actively asserting a belief in the non-existence of God, then that would require argumentation. Atheists don’t want to have to argue their position (likely because they know they can’t), so they go to great lengths to avoid the burden of proof. If you’re interested in more on that concept, you can check out another article I wrote on this subject https://www.engagein.org/is-atheism-a-religion/
However, there have been some philosophers (albeit, not that many) that have argued for the new definition of “atheism”. The most famous of these was Antony Flew, who argued that “atheism” is a psychological state where the person doesn’t have the belief that God exists. This is not only lacking popularity in academic circles, but it’s even considered to be somewhat radical, because it goes against how the term has been used historically. It also ends up being largely useless in practical life. In a practical sense of how we used words, we just don’t speak that way. When we create new terms to refer to some truth, we are affirming things that are true, rather than declaring what is not true. Again, when someone says that they’re an atheist, they are attempting to say more than the fact that they just don’t have a certain belief. They are declaring their position in the debate on the existence of God. Another point worth mentioning is that Antony Flew (the main proponent for this new type of definition) ended up abandoning his atheism near the end of his life, and became a theist. He even wrote a book on the topic; There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. The interesting thing here is that, even within his title, he treats atheism as if it was a position that he held, rather than merely a psychological state where he lacked a belief. He actively changed his mind, meaning, he believed one thing, and then he believed something different. So, it seems even the main proponent of this new type of definition of “atheism” cannot practically use it in real life.
If an atheist attempts to say they merely lack a belief in God, I’d recommend asking them, “do you personally believe that God does not actually exist?” If the answer is yes, then they are an actual atheist, under the traditional definition of the term, and they do have some burden of proof. If the answer is no, then they haven’t made up their mind on the topic, which means they are an agnostic. In this case, the person is merely waiting for more evidence and argumentation to make up their mind. On that note, there are quite a few very strong arguments for the existence of God, and for the most part they haven’t really been countered adequately by the atheist community in academia. (If you’re interested in a look at one of the arguments for God, check out this article https://www.engagein.org/misunderstanding-the-moral-argument-for-god/ ) The arguments for atheism have been sparse, and usually don’t really infer atheism at all, but merely respond to the Christian God specifically. For example, the main arguments against theism are the problem of evil and the hiddenness of God, and even if they work, they don’t infer that there is no God. Personally, I think this is the real reason for the new attempt to define “atheism”. The atheist knows they can’t really back up their belief that God doesn’t exist, so instead of being involved in rigorous debate, they actively avoid debate by rejecting the burden of proof at all costs.
Not only would I say atheism is an active belief system, but due to the lack or argumentation, I would also say it’s largely an irrational belief system which is believed for emotive reasons, rather than rational thinking based on evidence.
Jon Topping is a speaker with Engage International and is based out of Canada.