In a discussion, one of the most important things we can do is to properlydefine our terms. And this is incredibly true in the case of atheism, and how we’re defining atheism.
I will explain why I believe that defining atheism as “a lack of belief in god(s)” is inadequate… but first, some history.
(As originally stated by @PhilLOSTophy):
“It started in the debate between Bertrand Russell and Frederick Coppleston, where Russell was forced into claiming agnosticism and rejecting atheism, in a now famous debate. This shocked the skeptical philosophical community and Russell had to backtrack. Then along came Antony Flew who argued that the prefix ‘a’ in atheism meant ‘without’ belief in God, and this allowed him to disguise himself as an atheist while really holding to agnosticism. This meant that he could sit back, not defend his ‘position’ and pick apart the arguments of his opponents. Flew was brilliant, but this is underhanded and defining your terms to achieve this end has to become a new fallacy.”
In the words of Flew himself:
“the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way. Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence … of God … But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in … words as ‘amoral’ … . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist.” (Quote taken from Reasonable Faith)
This definition of atheism; as a “lack of belief in god(s)” (as many “new atheists” put it) is not accepted everywhere, however.
- According to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God”
- According to The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The term ‘atheist’ describes a person who does not believe that God or a divine being exists.”
So it would seem that the atheist, in order to a move a conversation forward, must provide an adequate and usable definition of atheism.
I’m not here to say that all atheists who define atheism as a “lack of belief” are doing so in order to remove all burden of proof. I am notoriously bad at attaching motivations to people’s actions.
I am merely looking for accuracy in the way that we use our words. It is a bit of a pragmatic concern, in a way.
I believe that atheism should not be defined as a “lack of belief in god(s)” for the following reasons:
- Atheism, by this definition, is not a statement about reality; it is a statement about the person’s individual psychological state. This is problematic because individual psychological don’t change the truth about any subject (other than the truth about their own psychological state, of course).
- Atheism, by this definition, is compatible with theism. Someone can “lack a belief in God” even if God exists.
- Atheism, by this definition, has no more reasoning behind it than the beliefs (or lack thereof) of a baby or a chipmunk. I know that many atheists have thought deeply about their beliefs, and to belittle themselves in such a way is unbecoming of even the most uninformed self-proclaimed atheist. Why would someone want to trivialize their own position like this?
It might be my inner analytic philosopher, but it seems that if we define atheism as “a lack of belief in god(s)”, it does more harm than good.