The Definition of Atheism

by Max Andrews

The range of definitions for atheism used today:

A:  The belief that God (or gods) do not exist.

A’:  The lack of belief in the existence of God (or gods).

I find most atheists to purport A’.  They have their reasons but I find it to be the case as to shift the burden of proof to the theist.  I don’t want to generalize this to all atheists but many will hold to A’ in definition but dialogue as if A is true.  I dialogued with a few atheists from the Lynchburg Area Secular Humanists about two years ago who conceded this point once I caught them trying to do this.

There’s an obvious logical distinction.  I believe atheism asserts that it is a belief that there is no God (A), though, historically it has been referred to as a lack of belief (A’).  To say it is lack of belief, I believe, is to commit the fallacy of semantic obsolescence (assigning a meaning that the word in question used to have in earlier times; but that is no longer found within the live, semantic range of the word).

If one holds to a “lack of belief in God” they have an existential quantifying statement (there is such a God that I don’t believe in).  If the atheist claims “I believe there is no God” (A), they apply a universal quantifier.  I find A’ to be more consistent with an agnostic (mostly soft agnostics) and not an atheist.  If the atheist holds to A’ then God could really exist and he just not believe in him in the atheist’s own paradigm.  That’s fine, it’s just whether or not he is consistent in his claims and his arguments.  I think a lot of time is wasted on squabbling over this definition when engaging in dialogue because once you start talking you’ll know where the atheist really stands anyways.  It’s not a hill to die on, the dialogue is more important.


4 Responses to “The Definition of Atheism”

  1. I hold to A’. I don’t think it’s obsolete, and (perhaps undermining my own credibility) keeping it from becoming obsolete is part of my agenda.

    I don’t see the existential quantifier as a problem; everyone rejects belief in numerous gods. Atheists, as the saying goes, go just “one god further” in our lack of belief.

    I also think it’s important in any serious discussion to settle on a particular definition of god (or a set of them) as a topic. There are gods I reject with great confidence (anthropomorphic interventionist entities), gods about which I admit greater uncertainty (like deist and Spinozan constructs) and gods which I have never seriously considered (ancient pantheons, recent paganisms).

    I cannot intelligently discuss all of these at once, and in any case theist discussion partners are typically happy to supply a clear definition. I think settling on a clear definition of “god” is a necessary first step since the degree and reasons for unbelief will vary accordingly.

    • Hey thekeyofatheist (sorry, didn’t know how else to address you lol), thanks for commenting! I completely agree with you, it’s crucial for both the theist and the atheist to understand what definition of God is being worked with. I hold to the Anselmian concept of God, the greatest conceivable being or the maximally perfect being. If we don’t have that than the conversation is moot. Now with the definition of atheism, the biggest issue in the dialogue for the theist (in my case as a Christian) is to convince the atheist that the God I believe in exists. Whether your lack of belief is universal or existentially quantified wouldn’t matter then.

      I’ll check out your blog as well! Feel free to throw in your comments wherever around my blog, I’d love to have a friendly dialogue sometime :-)

      • My real name is Jakob if you prefer to use that. I’m sure my handle can be contracted somehow but it hasn’t really come up yet; I didn’t take length into account when choosing it.

        I’ve always been confused by Anselm’s ontological argument. I’d love to try a skype chat or similar “real” conversation to break up the usual posting format.

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