Words are fun things. Someone who can spin them together beautifully has earned my respect. I think of those like Ravi Zacharias or C.S. Lewis. Their works combine intellectual rigour with what seems like poetry. It’s beautiful.
That’s why we’re going to work through a 3 part series about definitions. Fun! Actually, these are definitions that kind of annoy me. But nonetheless, Part 1 will be the definition of atheism, followed by the definition of religion, and finally we will be exploring what absolute truth means. However, this is somewhat misleading. I don’t necessarily intend to argue for a particular definition of a word. The definition may bleed out and I may explore possible definitions, but nonetheless, my primary purpose is discussing the importance of the definitions themselves and to provide suggestions on what to do should these definitions come up in a conversation.
So now that that’s out of the way: atheism!
If you’re unfamiliar, there is a debate going on about the definition of atheism. Generally attributed to begin with Flew’s “The Presumption of Atheism” (1972), there has been a push recently to alter the definition of atheism from the traditional philosophical position claiming that God does not exist to the idea atheism is a lack of belief in God.
What’s the difference? There’s a massive difference. Let’s symbolize the proposition “God exists” as P. The original definition is the claim that -P (not-P) is the way reality actually is. The new definition is to say that the person does not affirm P. One is to say “I believe -P” while the other is to say “I don’t believe P”.
In other words, traditional atheism makes a claim about reality. It’s a knowledge claim. It says that, in reality, God does not exist. If you make a claim about reality you need to provide justification. There is a burden of proof.
I don’t mean that one needs a mathematical level of proof. Literal, 100% proof, if required, would mean that I can know that I exist, but that’s about it. I have to exist to think about my existence. Otherwise it’s a contradiction. I think, therefore I am. In reality, we all work with an assumed “probably” or “is more likely true than not.” There is not 100% proof that the people I interact with aren’t meat zombies without self-conscienceness; only the illusion of it. I can’t test that. I can’t test that I’m not in the matrix. Science can’t tell us that the physical world is not an illusion. All tests on the world assume the reality of the world. And I can’t say with 100% certainty that I will be hit by an asteroid when sleeping. But you don’t need to and I don’t need to. We don’t need infallibility. Knowledge would be destroyed if we did. We are all limited to probabilities.
But that’s my Pauline rant. Moving on, the new definition of atheism is simply a description of one’s psychological state. This definition becomes equivalent to “non-theist”. An atheist is someone who, personally, does not fall in the “theist” category; a lack of belief in God. Atheism, in fact, is no longer a view! There is no claim being made about reality external to themselves. There is no truth claim, so there is no burden of proof. Ultimately, it doesn’t weigh in on the debate at all. Whether God actually exists or not in reality is not touched by the atheist.
Below, I have provided a (hopefully) helpful flowchart of possible answers an individual can provide if asked “Does God Exist?”
***FYI, verificationism claims the question is meaningless in the sense that the questions “What is the square root of yellow?” and “What is 7 plus wood?” are meaningless. The question doesn’t even make sense, or so they would claim. Also, apatheism could be a subcategory of basically every category depending on the person, but typically would be non-theistic and probably agnostic. It would generally not be included as an option. I include it for interest’s sake.***
As you might have guessed, the hubbub about the definition of atheism is about the burden of proof and what the proper “default” position is. Now, I don’t really want to get into arguing for or against one definition in this post. You can research that yourself (see here, here, here, esp. here, as it is written by a Ph.D in History of Philosophy who is likely not a theist, even though it is only reddit). Needless to say, I think the traditional definition is correct and the most useful, and soft agnosticism is probably the proper default. But personally, I care about the definition a lot less than some of the scholars I follow do. I don’t care about the definition. I care about what you actually think.
Now, granted, it is incredibly annoying if people aren’t being consistent. For example, if someone were to compare God to, say, a fairy tale; that would be claiming that God doesn’t actually exist. It’s doesn’t seem to be an attack on one’s justification for believing in God, as fairy tales are universally known not to be true. Otherwise, they would compare God to something more neutral like, say, believing in an even number of stars.
So, if they claimed, in one way or another, that God doesn’t exist (which the New Atheists do, all the time), whether probably or otherwise, and we ask them to support that claim, then they shirk their burden of proof by stating their definition of atheism (which the New Atheists do, all the time), that’s annoying. But that doesn’t have anything to do with, really, the definition of atheism itself. It’s a problem with the person being either ignorant or, to perhaps take an uncharitable view, maliciously lazy. That would show the person is, in fact, additionally in some now unnamed category that claims that God doesn’t exist and they are failing to provide justification for that position. The theist can now sit back and simply demand the evidence required of the atheist.
But the definition of a category isn’t what we really care about, is it? We are dialoguing on what the answer to the question is. We want to know whether God actually exists in the real world. We care about reality. The definition matters only insofar as it effects the question and the answer. Certainly, the definition of atheism should be argued in certain situations. Perhaps you find the other definition to be misleading? If you think the definition should be a lack of belief in God, sure; provide your apologetic for that definition. Same goes for the other side. But it seems to me that the definition sometimes becomes an end-in-itself, when all it really is is a step to answering whether God actually exists or not. So what can we do?
Define your terms! If you’re an atheist and you see a theist use the term, ask them how they define it so you’re on the same page. If someone says they’re an atheist, ask them what that means.
Moreover, if someone defines atheism as non-theism, ask them if they would be willing to clarify further, as Dr. William Lane Craig did in his debate with the late Chris Hitchens (full debate here, question at 1:18:55). If they then provide you with what they think is probably the case (which 99% of the time will be traditional atheism unless they’re really committed to requiring infallibility for knowledge), ask them why they think that (and, if applicable, perhaps how they know the requirement for knowledge).
And you’re off! You can now have a meaningful discussion about the arguments and evidence without being caught up on distracting subdiscussions that in the grand scheme don’t matter. What needs to be discussed is the truth claims, not semantics.
Just remember that if you make a truth claim you need to back it up, whether theist or atheist, regardless of how you define the term. As Chris Hitchens famously said in God Is Not Great:
That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
I agree. And that goes for atheists, too.