On Defining Atheism

Posted on July 18, 2014 by


by J.M. Njoroge

A popular tendency among some atheists these days is to define atheism, not as the positive thesis that God does not exist, but as the neutral claim that an atheist is one who simply lacks belief in God. If we could scan the mind of the atheist and catalogue all the beliefs the atheist holds, we would not find a belief of the form, “God exists.” Those who insist on defining atheism in this manner want to avoid the implications of having to defend the claim that God does not exist. They demand justification for faith in God while insisting that they bear no rational burdens in the debate since they are not making any positive claims on the question of God’s existence.

Internet AtheismThis strategy is mistaken on several levels. To begin with, there is no logical connection between a lack of belief about God in someone’s mind and the conclusion that God does not exist. At best, this definition leads us to agnosticism, roughly the view that we do not know whether or not God exists. For example, there are millions of people on this planet who hold no belief about the Los Angeles Lakers. But it would be quite a stretch to conclude from that empirical fact that the Lakers therefore do not exist.

Additionally, atheism thus defined is a psychological condition, not a cognitive thesis. Conduct a quick search on the Internet, and you will even find atheists who claim that babies are atheists because they lack belief in God. But, as some philosophers have pointed out, that is not a flattering state of affairs for the atheist, for, strictly speaking, a cow, by that definition, is also an atheist. For someone who is intent on merely giving a report about the state of his or her mind, pity, or an equivalent emotion, is the appropriate response, not a reasoned exchange. But nobody who has reflected long and hard about the issues and is prepared to argue vehemently about them should be let off the hook that easily.

In any case, such a definition of atheism goes against the intuitions held by almost everyone who has not been initiated into this way of thinking. In spite of the myriads of nuances one can give to one’s preferred version of denying God’s existence, the traditional view has been that there are ultimately only three attitudes one can take with regard to a particular proposition. Take the proposition, “God exists”. One could

  • affirm the proposition, which is theism,
  • Deny the proposition, which is atheism, or
  • withhold judgment with regard to the proposition, which is agnosticism.

Those who affirm the proposition have to give reasons why they think it is true. Those who deny it have to give reasons why they think it is false. Only those who withhold judgment have the right to sit on the fence on the issue. Thus J. J. C. Smart states matter-of-factly, “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.”1

Nor will an attempt to defend this new definition on the basis of the etymology of the word “atheist” work. The word “atheist” is from the Greek word “Theos” which means “God”, and the “a” is the negation. The “a” is taken to mean “without”, and hence “atheism” simply means “without belief in God”. But this will not do. Even if we grant that the “a” means “without”, we will still not arrive at the conclusion that atheism means “without belief in God”. What is negated in the word “atheism” is not “belief” but “God”. Atheism still means “without God”, not “without belief”. There is no concept of “belief” in the etymology of the word – the word simply means the universe is without God, which is another way of saying that God does not exist.

Semantic quibbles aside, there are deeper problems with this position. The same atheists who decry the irrationality of believing in God still insist on shoehorning theistic ideas into their ontology. Most of them continue to defend the meaning and purpose of life, the validity of objective morality and the assurance that humanity is marching on towards progress and would move thus faster were it not for the shackles of religion. Such cosmic optimism would be unrecognizable to the most prominent atheists of yesteryear, not to mention the many in our day who say as much. It is recognized as a remnant of a biblical tradition that still has some of its grip on the western psyche.

Speaking about the belief that every human life needs to be protected, Richard Rorty wrote, “This Jewish and Christian element in our tradition is gratefully invoked by free-loading atheists like myself.” 2 But if God does not exist, theists live on false hope, and the freeloaders fair no better. Sever the cord between God and those elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the honest among us fly into oblivion with shrills of despair to which only a Nietzsche or a Jean Paul Sartre can do full justice; for the validity of such positive attitudes about life is directly propositional to the plausibility of the existence of a caring God who directs the affairs of mankind.

J.M. Njoroge is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

1 J. J. C. Smart, “Atheism and Agnosticism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
2 Richard Rorty, “Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism,” in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 80, No. 10, Part 1: (Oct., 1983), pp. 583-589.

Posted in: Apologias