Revisiting Definition: Atheism is the Belief/Doctrine that God Does Not Exist, Not a Lack of Belief

In our most recent problematizing of the atheist’s defining atheism to be “a lack of belief in God or gods” (which we refer to as negative atheism), we noted several issues. These ranged from negative atheisms’ inconsistency with the practices of atheists, its inability to account for subjective religiosity, the desire to shirk any epistemic responsibility for the atheist, the fact that negative atheism makes babies and dogs atheists, and that on such a definition atheism essentially means nothing in that it is no more than a psychological disposition.

This author engaged with many atheists regarding these issues on online social media groups. The most common response to this author’s disagreement with negative atheism was that the author had misunderstood atheism and should allow atheists themselves to define atheism. The same logic that atheism is just a “lack of belief in God” was parroted to a wearisome degree. One atheist moderator was outright hostile and threatened to mute this author in the group. Although one or two representatives provided more substantive responses, it suffices for now to say that the criticisms lodged against negative atheism were largely left untouched. Our purpose here is not to respond to these general claims or look more into them, but rather to further push the point home that atheism is not a “lack of belief in God or gods,” but the positive belief that God (and gods) does not exist (we call this ‘positive atheism’). Here we want to do this by showing that academic sources are largely on our side on this issue and that negative atheism is merely a redefinition on behalf of many contemporary atheists to serve their interests.

As some of the atheists holding negative atheism will make known, a few dictionaries are purported to support their view (negative atheism). They might point to the UK Dictionary that defines atheism as the “Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods” or to the Marriam-Webster that defines it as “a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods.” Such definitions in these dictionaries certainly cohere with negative atheism. However, we need to strongly question these definitions.

We must not, for one, treat them as the final word, especially not over and above academic sources authored by scholars who are far more nuanced and careful in their use, articulation, and employment of terms. Second, dictionary definitions are easily problematized. The Merriam-Webster definition of “religion” (defined as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural” and “commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance”) has been massively problematized by academics in the study of religion that it would difficult to even know where to start. This author believes we can do the same with some of the dictionary definitions of (negative) atheism. Another problem with dictionary definitions is that the terms have been defined based on how persons use them, which is problematic on its own.

Dennis Baron, a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois, problematizes the use of dictionaries by judges in matters of law and articulates that “dictionaries aren’t designed to be legal authorities, or even authorities on language…” (1). He goes on to write that,

“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.”

A final issue with dictionaries is that they conflict. For example, whereas Merriam-Webster defines atheism as a lack of belief in God or gods, another dictionary, the Oxford Reference, states atheism to be “The theory or belief that God does not exist” (2).

Dictionary definitions having been problematized, let’s turn to ask what academic sources say atheism is? Although definitions are debated and not all scholars will agree, we will discover that a large proportion of these sources do not agree with negative atheism, but define atheism do be a belief and/or view. We can note several.

Philosopher of religion Paul Draper writes for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that,

“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)” (3). 

According to Draper, atheism is the positive claim that God does not exist. According to Ernest Nagel (1901-1985) in his A Defense of Atheism (1957), “I shall understand by ‘atheism’ a critique and a denial of the major claims of all varieties of theism” (4). Michael Martin concedes that “In its broader sense atheism, from the Greek a (‘without’) and theos (‘deity’), standardly refers to the denial of the existence of any god or gods”– any god or gods” (5). According to Matt McCormick for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Atheism is the view that there is no God” (6) and that “Atheists typically take the view that there is sufficient evidence to justify concluding that there is no God” (7).

For the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, although William Rowe (1931-2015) notes that some have indeed defined atheism as the “nonbelief in the existence of God, rather than positive belief in the nonexistence of God,” he then observes how “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” (8). He goes on to write that “Atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief.”

In Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (2003), philosopher Julian Baggini defines atheism as “the belief that there is no God or gods” (9). Baggini contrasts atheism with agnosticism, the latter of which claims that “we cannot know whether God exists and so the only rational option is to reserve judgement” and that atheism “is motivated at least in part by their naturalism.” 

According to Bruce Milem, atheism is the “proposition that reality is solely an impersonal order” (10). According to Shoaib Ahmed Malik, writing for the Philosophy journal, atheism is the “propositional denial of God” and then he takes steps to demonstrate why conflating atheism and agnosticism is mistaken (11). In the Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy, atheism is defined as “The belief that God – especially a personal, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God – does not exist” (12). Atheism is, moreover, a philosophical position that marshals arguments against belief in God.

In the Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2005), “Atheism is ostensibly the doctrine that there is no God.” Atheism is a position claimed to be supported by arguments (13). In the Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006), Donald Borchert states that,

“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” (14).

So, in conclusion, we can begin to wrap up these various voices. What do they tell us about the definition of atheism? They inform us that atheism is a doctrine, proposition, position, and belief. The atheist maintains and advocates for the belief that God does not exist. Atheism is thus, according to these academic views, not an absence of belief in God, but the positive belief and claim that God or gods do not exist. The implication of this is perhaps too difficult for some atheists to accept, which explains why they dogmatically grip to negative atheism. If atheism is the doctrine, proposition, position, and belief that God or gods do not exist, then this requires the atheist to justify such views, which is far more difficult than adopting the comfortable default position of lacking a belief in God or gods that requires no justification.

References

1. Dennis, Baron. 2011. Webster’s Lays Down the Law. Available.

2. Oxford Reference. Atheism. Available.

3. Draper, Paul. 2017. Atheism and Agnosticism. Available.

4. Cliteur, Paul. 2010. The Varieties of Atheist Experience. Available.

5. Cliteur, Paul. 2010. Ibid.

6. McCormick, Matt. 2010. Atheism. Available.

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

8. Rowe, William L. 1998. “Atheism”. In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward Craig. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis.

9. Baggini, Julian. 2003. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 3.

10. Milem, Bruce. 2019. “Defining atheism, theism, and god.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 85:335-346.

11. Malik, Shoaib Ahmed . 2018. “Defining Atheism and the Burden of Proof.” Philosophy 93(2):279-301. 

12. Bunnin, Nicholas., and Yu, Jiyuan. 2008. The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. p. 57.

13. Honderich, Ted. 2005. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 65.

14. Borchert, Donald M. 2006. Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 1. Macmillan Reference USA. p. 359

5 comments

  1. I understand it in a more roundabout way – that atheism presupposes a worldview where god(s) do not exist. The actual claim is therefore implicit – metaphysical naturalism hasn’t in fact been established and is only assumed. This allows the atheist to suppose he’s “not making any claims” while the theist supposedly bears the burden of proof.

  2. “The atheist maintains and advocates for the belief that God does not exist. Atheism is thus, according to these academic views, not an absence of belief in God, but the positive belief and claim that God or gods do not exist.”

    so, since Christians believe this about other gods, then you are atheists. Welcome to the club!

  3. To be fair… atheism and atheists do not claim or maintain or advocate that God or gods do not exist. I’m not atheist, but I’ve spoken with and interacted with enough to know that to Define atheism as such is dishonest… knowingly so… for polemic purposes, not purposes of truth.

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