Atheism’s Definitional Problem: A Lack of Belief in God, or Something More?

Many atheists are adamant that their atheism is “a lack of belief in God or gods” (we will call this negative atheism) and nothing more than that. In this article, we survey several of the claims atheists make and the justifications they present for negative atheism. This article will, however, problematize the definition of (negative) atheism as a lack of belief in God or gods. We will also argue that defining atheism this way serves the atheist’s ideological interests and that it uncharitably and counterproductively skews the debate between atheists and theists in the favor of the atheist. For ease of entry into this discussion, we can cite the American Atheists group who affirms negative atheism. According to the group,

“Atheism is not an affirmative belief that there is no god nor does it answer any other question about what a person believes. It is simply a rejection of the assertion that there are gods. Atheism is too often defined incorrectly as a belief system. To be clear: Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods.” (Their emphasis)

The American Atheists group defines atheism as a lack of belief in God. The atheist, on their view, does not make any positive claim that God does not exist. He also does not hold to a belief that God does not exist. This definition (negative atheism) must be seen in contrast to positive atheism. The latter type affirms the non-existence of God. Here the atheist holds to the belief that God does not exist. Many historic atheists traditionally took this positive atheism route and realized the need to provide a rational justification for the belief that God does not exist. Many atheists today have altered the definition and now define their atheism as a lack of belief in God or gods. 

But problems begin to emerge upon deeper reflection on negative atheism. For one, it strikes one as confused. For instance, the American Atheists group writes that “Only about 5% of people call themselves atheists, but if you ask about belief in gods, 11% say they do not believe in gods. Those people are atheists, whether they choose to use the word or not.”

Here the American Atheists group attempts to appropriate persons who do not believe in gods as atheists. There is clear appropriation because these people who are allegedly called atheists according to the American Atheists group likely themselves would not want to be defined as such. But the negative atheism definition becomes tortured when we consider subjective religiosity, which refers to persons who are not attached to or affiliated with religious institutions but nonetheless hold to a belief in various religious concepts. In other words, many persons who are unaffiliated and who do not believe in God (at least the Judeo-Christian one) still hold to religious beliefs (e.g. reincarnation, hell, the soul, ultimate reality, universal spirit, etc.). For example, the Czech Republic is the odd one out when it comes to irreligiosity in Europe. Apparently, 66% of Czechs say they do not believe in God, but only 25% describe themselves as atheists (1). Why is there this gap between those who claim not to believe in God and the smaller number who identify as atheists? Shouldn’t all 66% be atheists? The answer lies in subjective religiosity. But on negative atheism’s definition, these people are all atheists despite them holding to religious concepts and not identifying themselves as atheists. But surely we would not consider such persons atheists since they are still, in some sense, religious. Yet negative atheism demands that even those people who are religious without belief in God must be necessarily atheists because they lack a belief in God. This seems odd. 

Negative atheism can be further problematized because it would even make babies and dogs atheists. After all, they all lack a belief in God or gods. In other words, if atheism is just a lack of belief in God or gods (negative atheism), then it ceases to mean anything. It is just a psychological disposition and the term itself becomes useless. It makes little sense then that atheists would be so proud and bold about their atheism, since it means nothing.

Be that as it may, one might also point out that the practices of atheists seem very odd if they merely embrace a lack of belief in God or gods. The critic argues that it is odd that atheists are so passionate, energized, and purposeful in their behaviors based on what they all lack. Yet atheists see in their atheism a symbolism of many things, such as the celebration of reason, the exposing of religious superstitions, communal unity, etc. Surely then something more is at work here than what one merely lacks. Critics thus argue that it is because of the practices of atheists that atheism appears to be significantly more than a lack of belief in God or gods. Moreover, why would atheists author books and engage in formal debates with theists about things they don’t have any beliefs about? Negative atheism does not make sense when we consider the practices of atheists themselves.

Negative atheism then seems questionable when we begin to ask probing questions. This should lead one to agree that atheism is “the view that there is no God” (2). In other words, atheism is a view, not something someone lacks. Moreover, what are the interests that negative atheism serves the atheist?

Here we suspect that the major interest is that negative atheism by default places the burden of proof on the shoulders of the theist, the ideological opponent of the atheist. The atheist considers negative atheism to be the default position because it asserts nothing and is therefore the rational position to hold to until someone else (the theist) presents compelling evidence for his or her claims. But here the odds are stacked against the theist because the atheist can demand evidence and summarily dismiss anything that is offered. By contrast, the atheist need not offer anything because he just lacks a belief in God or gods. In other words, negative atheism sidesteps any epistemic responsibility and opens the possibility for the atheist to wave away any evidence he does not like. One must not fall into the trap of thinking that atheists are necessarily being honest here. Many critics and witnesses can attest to the lack of charity and fairness afforded by atheists in matters of debate about religion. Atheists are aware that negative atheism renders the playing field lopsided in their favor. Theistic philosopher William Lane Craig has also responded to negative atheism and identifies the interests it serves,

“So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position? Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists. If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view.  But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof.  So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions.  They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities” (3).

Another issue with negative atheism here is that it serves to undermine dialogue. There is no sharing of justification of ideologies, at least on the atheist’s part, as only one party is expected to justify its views (the theist). Not only does this rig the debate against the theist but it is also counterproductive for those seeking to have a substantive discussion. After all, we want to know the reasons that are offered in support of and against the existence of God. But we cannot have this if only one side is expected to pitch up to the podium. After all, if the atheist embracing negative atheism has nothing to say, then why even bother engaging with him at all? 

Some critics have also noted that two can play this “lack-of-belief” game. For example, the philosopher Alvin Plantinga contends that the theist can simply claim to be an aatheist, namely a person who just lacks belief in atheism. Thus, theism would become the default position and the burden of proof would land on the atheist’s shoulders. If the atheist fails to provide evidence for atheism, then theism (or aatheism) is more reasonable by definition. But in reality, these redefinitions are just silly and we ought to avoid them and be brave enough to provide justification for our views (4).

In conclusion, we find negative atheism problematic. It is an attempt by default to unfairly put the atheist’s ideological opponent (the theist) on the backfoot in discussions on God. It also problematic because negative atheism is nothing more than, well, nothing. It makes no claims, does not attempt to justify anything, and is therefore meaningless and pointless in any discussion. Also, as noted, negative atheism serves the atheist’s interests by fashioning for him a comfortable ideological position and vantage point from which he can happily dismiss any evidence a theist presents to make his case. Negative atheism is therefore dishonest and should be rejected in favor of a bolder positive atheism that is brave enough to justify its position.

References

1. Starr, Kelsey Jo. 2019. Once the same nation, the Czech Republic and Slovakia look very different religiously. Available.

2. McCormick, Matt. n.d. Atheism. Available.

3. Craig, William Lane. 2007. #6 Definition of atheism. Available.

4. Plantinga, Alvin. 2000. “Religious Belief as ‘Properly Basic.’” In Philosophy of Religion: A Guide and Anthology, edited by Brian Davies. New York: Oxford. p. 51.

3 comments

  1. “In conclusion, we find negative atheism problematic. It is an attempt by default to unfairly put the atheist’s ideological opponent (the theist) on the backfoot in discussions on God. It also problematic because negative atheism is nothing more than, well, nothing. It makes no claims, does not attempt to justify anything, and is therefore meaningless and pointless in any discussion. Also, as noted, negative atheism serves the atheist’s interests by fashioning for him a comfortable ideological position and vantage point from which he can happily dismiss any evidence a theist presents to make his case. Negative atheism is therefore dishonest and should be rejected in favor of a bolder positive atheism that is brave enough to justify its position.”

    aka we are whining since we know we can’t show that our god exists.

    yep, atheism is just a conclusion that there are no god/gods. And it is not meaningless at all in a discussion where someone who does claim a god exists finds they can’t show that this is the case.

    Try again and less lies next time.

  2. Wow! you’re really splitting hairs here! What’s the difference between a person that holds “a lack of belief in god or gods” (your definition of “negative atheism”) and a person that doesn’t believe that a god or gods exist? Sounds like the opposite side of the same coin, in fact it is. Anyone that has ever told me they lack a belief in god is an atheist, pure and simple, you can call yourself whatever you like. (You built your own false premise – so-called “negative atheism” – and then knocked it down all on your own.) No one is trying to put the “opposition”, if you want to characterize it that way, on their back foot. They are already on their back foot since they have never provided an once of proof.

    And, by the way, the obligation to prove the existence of a god is entirely – and rightfully – placed in the court of the believers. You can not ask someone to “prove” that something DOESN’T exist and put forward a position that it DOES when you yourself can’t provide even a scintilla of evidence in support of it. If you can’t prove it’s there, it’s probably not. As far as the Czechs go, they’re atheists, period. If they don’t’ believe if god or gods, that is the very definition of atheism. Webster’s Dictionary “a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or gods.” They can call themselves whatever they like, it’s immaterial.

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