What is Atheism? Why The Definition Matters – By Reason Being

Posted by on June 3, 2012 in Featured, Guest Post, Thoughts | 14 comments

Guest Post by Reason Being.

 I am on a blogging hiatus for a couple of weeks so I can concentrate on a larger project, which I’m sure you all will enjoy. In the meantime, I have invited a bunch super-smart authors, bloggers, vloggers, writers, clowns, and people with other interests to submit work here, just so the blog doesn’t stagnate. I hope you enjoy them. This piece was submitted by fellow blogger Reason Being. His Twitter account is @logicalbeing so go follow him.

Martin S Pribble

A few weeks ago Martin was kind enough to write a guest post for my blog. His post was called “Fear of Atheism” and was also posted on this site. You can read it here if you like. It is an excellent post that seemed to cause some controversy with a theist blogger. I do not want to rehash all of that today. I bring it up as a springboard to a topic that has been bothering me lately. It seems to me that most of us atheists know what the word “atheism” defines. That is a good thing. The problem lies in the fact that many theists do not understand the word. I would posit that the failure to understand what atheism means is at the heart of many debates between theists and atheists. It is also clear for anyone who spends some time on reddit’s r/atheism (and other places on the web,) that many new atheists also are not sure what atheism means. They often ask questions in some form of “I do not really believe in god…now what do I do?” The answers are often helpful, but not always. I wanted to take a few moments to shed some light on this topic as it seems important if the atheist movement is to move forward.

Atheism, in its most basic form is not a belief. In fact, it is the absence of belief. This is something that many of us realize but often concede when debating with theists. There is a major difference between a belief and the absence of a belief. Atheists are not people who believe that gods do not exist. Atheists are people who do not believe in the existence of gods. The difference between those two sentences is profound. (These definitions were taken from George Smith’s “Atheism: The Case Against God”—it is well worth a read if you have not done so). I want to spend a few minutes looking at the difference between those two statements.

The false statement, “Atheists are people who believe that gods do not exist” is a statement of positive belief. If I say to you, “I believe that gods do not exist” I am making a statement of belief. You would be well justified to then ask me, “Well, RB what evidence do you have to support that belief”. This would put me in a troublesome spot. It is widely acknowledged that at this point in time it is not possible to definitively prove that gods do not exist. Perhaps the most famous iteration of that position is Richard Dawkins’ scale of belief where 1 is a theist who “knows” gods exist and 7 is an atheist who “knows” gods do not exist. Dawkins identifies himself as a 6. There is no concrete proof, at this point in time that proves gods do not exist. In my 20 years of being an atheist, I have yet to meet anyone who claims to be an atheist who is a 7 on Dawkins’ scale. The person that this false statement describes rarely exists, if he/she exists at all. If a person with this belief were encountered, they would be dismissed by most atheists as irrational and incorrect. For theists to attack this (wrong) definition of atheism is nothing more than attacking a straw man. This (wrong) definition is not atheism, it is lunacy.

The second statement above, “Atheists are people who do not believe in the existence of gods” has a very different meaning. To follow the same line of thinking from the above paragraph…If I say to you, “I do not believe in the existence of gods” I am not making a statement of belief. I am stating the absence of belief…there is no positive belief that requires proof in my statement. The next logical
question for you to ask me would be, “Well, RB why do you not believe in the existence of gods?” My response would be, “Good question. I do not believe in the existence of gods because a)there is very little evidence to support the idea that gods exist and b) the evidence that is put forth has quite a bit of holes in it.” The conversation from this point can then become a debate about the theories for the existence of gods.

At this point it becomes necessary to discuss the idea of the “burden of proof”. Without question, the person who is making the positive claim has the burden of proof. This is why the above definition and distinction of atheism becomes important. If we have a person that is one hundred percent convinced that god does not exist — a 7 on Dawkins’ scale — that person would assume a burden of proof. However, that is not atheism. That is irrationality and ignorance. That person is an extremist on the opposite end of the scale of the theist. Likewise, the theist always has the burden of the proof. It is the theist that is claiming that gods exist. That is a positive belief that requires evidence. The vast majority of atheists listen to that evidence and they reject it. They do not make a positive statement of
belief. They are simply rejecting the reasoning of others. Atheism is not a belief. Atheists do not get off the hook that easily though. If we are going to reject the arguments for deities, we had better be able to explain why we reject them. If we cannot do that, we do not win the debate. Our burden, if you will, is to be able to explain the holes in the theists “proofs”.

These distinctions are quite important. When I surf various atheist and theist blogs, reddit, and other areas where debates between atheists and theists occur it seems as if this distinction often gets lost in the shuffle. The accomplished apologist is quite adept when it comes to shifting this burden of proof. Be aware to not let that happen. The ignorant theist is often unaware that the shift of “proof” they are seeking is incorrect. Be aware of that as well. Almost every debate that I have stumbled upon between
a theist and an atheist, where the atheist has struggled, these two things manifest themselves. The atheist has either allowed the burden of proof to shift and/or is not able to successfully argue why the position of theist is full of holes.

If, as an atheist, you find yourself arguing with a theist who is trying to shift the burden of proof and does not understand what atheism is, stand your ground. Be able to explain the difference between what atheism is — the absence of belief, and what it is not — a positive belief. Be able to explain why the theist has the burden of proof. This can be challenging. One of the key arguments theists make is that
the atheist position is just a “cop-out”. That is fallacious and shows a profound lack of knowledge in the logic required to have this debate. Stand your ground. If you get nowhere then walk away. You are wasting your time dealing with an irrational person. Irrational people are not worth the time to debate.

Rational theists often relish the opportunity to prove their deity exists.

If, as an atheist, you find yourself unable to point out the flaws in theists’ reasons for the existence of god, you probably should not be debating theists. We hear all the time that atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in gods. This is true. It is nothing more than that. However, as an atheist, we should be able to express why we have a lack of belief in gods. After all, atheism is not irrational, as
many theists try to claim. There are very rational reasons why atheists do not believe in the existence of gods. Stating those reasons, in reference to a theists’ claim for a deity is not making a positive statement of belief, but it is expressing a rational explanation of where the theist goes wrong. There are many reasons why someone may define themselves as an atheist. Each atheist should be able
to express those reasons. If the atheist cannot do that, they should not be out seeking converts to atheism, but should be reading and studying their own reasons for being an atheist.

The correct definition of atheism matters. Theists often try to discredit us with nonsense that is in no way implied in the definition of atheism. In this century it is important that the atheist movement progress. All around us, we see fundamentalist theists attempting to wrest power from governments. If successful, the future looks dim. Civil rights would be curtailed for certain groups and scientific inquiry would be in serious jeopardy. It is paramount that we atheists make ourselves heard and stand up for what is right. Things like science and social justice, while not a part of atheism, are subjects that many of us feel strongly about. In order for us to be able to push for the non-atheist societal and political goals that many of us possess, we will need to fight against theists who have the opposite goals. This will require us to understand what atheism is, it will require us to force theists to understand what atheism is, for no other reason than to disallow theists from defining and marginalizing us. That is why this piece was important for me to write. I am sick and tired of hearing from theists that “As an atheist I must be ________”. No. As an atheist I am a person who does not believe in the existence of gods. I will not let the theist falsely define me or this debate any longer.

Now that the debate is properly defined and framed, the next step, at least for me, is to express why the battle between theists and atheists needs to happen. I have written a post on my site that goes in conjunction with one. You can read it here: Why It Is Important for Atheists To Speak Up.

Thanks for reading.

RB

I have a forum on my blog titled Promote Your Blog/Share Your Road To Atheism Story. If you have a blog please feel free to stop by and promote it. If you would like to share your story of how you became an atheist, please do that as well. Our stories may help to encourage others with similar feelings to know that life is more than just okay without god(s).
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14 Comments

  1. In other words, check if your interlocutor thinks they’re debating an agnostic (without beliefs) or a pagan (unpopular beliefs).

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  2. I think atheism is a statement of belief. You don’t reject the belief in God, you actively disbelieve in a God. Phrase the question as “Do you believe that there is no God?” and if you answer “Yes” you are an atheist and hold a belief about God. Agnostics and apatheists may lack belief in regards to God, but atheists hold a belief.

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    •  @deityshmeity No doubt many agree with you. 
       
      Though consider this:  The atheist can form a belief –an belief about existence– in regards to a being they have in mind, say a biblical character. But imho you have no existence-belief (are agnostic) about historical figures that you don’t have in mind, say because you never heard of them.
       
      I’m suggesting historical figures in its broadest sense so as to include any creator gods ever written about. Eg. you were agnostic towards the existence of the poet Homer before you first heard about him. Now you have a disbelief/belief in his existence.
       
      Therefore the self-described atheist (disbeliever) can also be a self-described agnostic (without knowledge). 
       
      Those 2 labels needn’t be mutual exclusive:
       
      “Dawkins identifies himself repeatedly as an atheist, while also pointing out that, in a sense, he is also agnostic…” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_God_Delusion)
       
       

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      •  @blamer I’m aware that one can be both atheist and agnostic (I wrote this after all: http://deityshmeity.blogspot.com/2012/04/what-hell-am-i.html ) but that doesn’t affect my statement. If you say that you are an atheist, you are saying that you believe that there is no god. It is a statement of belief because it can’t be known for sure.
         
        I usually agree with Reason Being, but not here. Atheism isn’t a religion or a faith, as theists sometimes claim, but it is a belief.

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        •  @deityshmeity Yeah I can come at this. Yours is the more common form. Most talk about their gods-disbelief like their UFOs-disbelief; judging them to be fanciful en masse is approximate to forming an underlying rejection-belief (of that category of tall tales).

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    •  @deityshmeity I have never made the positive claim that “god does not exist”.  At this point in time and human knowledge, that is something that cannot be proven with certainty either way.  I think that most people who identify as atheists realize that, therefore do not identify as they type of atheist that Stan is constantly seeking.  I always state that I do NOT believe in the existence of gods.  By that, I mean that I reject all of the arguments that I have heard for god’s existence.  To me, and I think to many atheists there is no positive statement of belief. 

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      •  @reasonbeingblog I see what you’re saying, but a negative belief is still a belief, isn’t it? “I hold the belief that there is no god.” “I don’t believe there is a god.” Are these statements that apply to you?
         
        Wikipedia say belief is “the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true.” If the proposition is that there is no god, doesn’t that make atheism a belief? To me, a lack of belief means that have no opinion–that you haven’t considered a proposition.

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        •  @deityshmeity I see what you are saying as well.  Let me answer your question.  I would not say “I hold the belief that there is no god or I don’t believe there is a god”—those are statements that in my opinion, at the present time and with present human knowledge cannot be proven.  I would answer your question the following way.  I believe that the evidence for the existence of god is poor, illogical, wrong, etc.  I would say that I do not believe/support the evidence for the idea that a god exists.  That is, at least to me, a defensible position.  I could outline for you exactly where my disagreements with the arguments/evidence for god’s existence lies.
           
          I would say that my belief (or lack thereof), using the definition that you provided is aimed more at the arguments/evidence provided for god’s existence than at any deity.  It is the evidence that I, as an atheist, am rejecting.  It is not so much the idea of god that I am not believing, as it is the arguments for god.  That leaves me with a lack of belief in god by default.  I think it really is a matter of semantics, but an important one.
           
          I would say that I have a lack of belief in deities, but strongly believe the arguments for deities are full of holes.  To me, that is a major difference.
           
          This is an interesting discussion.  Thanks for posting your comments Grundy!  For those of you who have not checked out his blog Deity Shmeity, I highly recommend it!
           

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        •  @reasonbeingblog Okay, I have far too much arguing to do with apologists to argue with you, RB. :-) I may do a post on this myself, and thanks for the plug.

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        •  BTW, I’m liking this Livefyre plug-in. May have to use it on my WordPress blog.

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        •  @deityshmeity We’d love to have you on Livefyre! Ping me if you’ve any questions :) 

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        •  @deityshmeity I kind of like it as well.

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  3. You may try to change the definition as you will, but you cannot make universal declarations regarding how the 5 million Athests in the USA are to define it.  According to this Barna poll, “5,000,000 adults claim Atheism and “staunchly reject the existence of such a being [God].”
     
    http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12-faithspirituality/102-atheists-and-agnostics-take-aim-at-christians
     
    Trying to disclaim this belief strongly appears to be a blatant attempt to avoid the responsibility for having rational reasons – logic and material evidence – which support the positive rejection.  When a proposition is rejected with no reasons being given for the rejection, there is no reason or reasons to believe that the rejection is rational or even has meaning (beyond an emotional reason).
     
    This attempt to avoid giving reason(s) for rejecting the basic Theist proposition is seen as a fundamental intellectual dishonesty in Atheism, at least in those who deny “staunchly rejecting the existence of such a being”.  It is yet another reason Atheists do not generate any trust, and in fact generate distrust.

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    •  @stanstanstan Again you tilt at a straw man.  No one is saying that atheists do not have reasons for not believing in deities.  I would argue that we reject the various “proofs” that a god(s) exist.  If a theist comes to me saying that god exists because of A, then I need to explain why I reject A.  There is nothing irrational or dishonest about that.
       
      What you are constantly looking for on your blog is an atheist to offer a concrete proof that gods do not exist.  You will most likely never find such a person, and if you do, you will find that most other atheists reject that person’s ideas.  I reject every argument I have ever heard for the existence of a god.  There is also much circumstantial information, for lack of a better term, that would imply that a deity does not exist.  However, as an atheist, even I have to leave the door open a crack to the possibility that gods exist.  When you get down to it, most people who identify as atheists, really are agnostic, but lean towards atheism, hence the term agnostic atheist, which you reject as a cop out because it does not fit your argument.  (Blamer writes on this below).  I think you will find that many atheists fit something close to this description.  That is why I continuously say you are fighting straw men. 
       
      You also grossly misrepresent whatever anyone says.  In none of our various correspondences have I stated that I reject any proposition without having a reason for doing so.  In essence your entire above comment is nonsense.  Of course any rational person must have a reasons for they they reject something.  No one will argue that point with you.  It would be foolish to say “I do not like baseball” without explaining to you why I do not like baseball.  When I state that I lack a belief in gods, it is usually followed by “because there is no convincing evidence to believe that gods exist.  The conversation then often goes to the theist offering up a reason, say the Ontological Argument, and me explaining why I reject that.  There is nothing irrational or dishonest about it.

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