Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Does atheism mean “a lack of belief in God”?

First, let’s see check with the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Excerpt:

‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.

Stanford University is one of the top 5 universities in the United States, so that’s a solid definition. To be an atheist is to be a person who makes the claim that, as a matter of FACT, there is no intelligent agent who created the universe. Atheists think that there is no God, and theists think that there is a God. Both claims are objective claims about the way the world is out there, and so both sides must furnish forth arguments and evidence as to how they are able to know what they are each claiming.

Philosopher William Lane Craig has some thoughts on atheism, atheists and lacking belief in God in this reply to a questioner.

Question:

In my discussions with atheists, they  are using the term that they “lack belief in God”. They claim that this is different from not believing in God or from saying that God does not exist. I’m not sure how to respond to this. It seems to me that its a silly word-play and is logically the same as saying that you do not believe in God.
What would be a good response to this?
Thank you for your time,

Steven

And here is Dr. Craig’s full response:

Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God.  Compare my saying, “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.”   If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars.  There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).”   Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.

But where your atheist friends err is in claiming that atheism involves only not believing that there is a God rather than believing that there is no God.

There’s a history behind this.  Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist.  Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists.

So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken.  For the assertion that “There is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “There is a God.”  Therefore, the former assertion requires justification just as the latter does.  It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence.  He confesses that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or whether there is no God.

But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.”  So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists).  As Antony Flew confesses,

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. (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford:  Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew)

Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view.  It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all.  On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists!  In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.

One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.

So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position?  Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists.  If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view.  But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof.  So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions.  They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.

This is disingenuous and still leaves us asking, “So is there a God or not?”

So there you have it. We are interested in what both sides know and what reasons and evidence they have to justify their claim to know. We are interested in talking to people who make claims about objective reality, not about themselves, and who then go on to give reasons and evidence to support their claims about objective reality. There are atheists out there that do make an objective claim that God does not exist, and then support that claim with arguments and evidence. Those are good atheists, and we should engage in rational conversations with them. But clearly there are some atheists who are not like that. How should we deal with these “subjective atheists”?

Dealing with subjective atheists

How should theists respond to people who just want to talk about their psychological state? Well, my advice is to avoid them. They are approaching religion irrationally and non-cognitively – like the person who enters a physics class and says “I lack a belief in the gravitational force!”.  When you engage in serious discussions with people about God’s existence, you only care about what people know and what they can show to be true. We don’t care about a person’s psychology.

Dealing with persistent subjective atheists

What happens when you explain all of that to a subjective atheist who continues to insist that you listen to them repeat over and over “I lack a belief in God, I lack a belief in God”? What if you tell them to make the claim that God does not exist, and then support it with arguments and evidence, but instead they keep leaving comments on your blog telling you again and again about their subjective state of mind: “I lack a belief in cupcakes! I lack a belief in icebergs!” What if they keep e-mailing you and threatening to expose you on Twitter for refusing to listen to them, or denounce you via skywriting: “Wintery Knight won’t listen to me! I lack a belief in crickets!”. I think at this point you have to give up and stop talking to such a person.

And that’s why I moderate and filter comments on this blog. There are uneducated people out there with access to the Internet who want attention, but I am not obligated to give it to them. And neither are you. We are not obligated to listen to abusive people who don’t know what they are talking about. I do post comments from objective atheists who make factual claims about the objective world, and who support those claims with arguments and evidence. I am not obligated to post comments from people who refuse to make objective claims or who refuse to support objective claims with arguments and evidence. And I’m not obligated to engage in discussions with them, either.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

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26 Responses

  1. When someone “lacks a belief” in something, he does not think about it or talk about it until he is prompted. But the moment a person expresses an opinion about the matter, he no longer lacks belief. He automatically takes an affirmative or negative position. There seem to be a great many persons who “lack belief” who nevertheless have very strong opinions.

    • That’s right Michele. Have you written up your thoughts on atheism anywhere that I could link to?

    • Fred says:

      Michele,

      Your argument is deeply flawed as it’s based on semantic errors. “Belief”, “opinion”, and “rational conclusion” are not equivalent, yet you muddle them together willy-nilly. A belief that the moon is made of green cheese is not logically equivalent to the rational conclusion that it is not.

      You may reject this as an analogy for belief in God, but I think it works rather well. There is no evidence for the lunar green cheese claim and there is a vast body of knowledge from evidence-based fields of study against any similar claims that cannot be ignored. The claim is, as are all claims, probabilistic in nature. We rationally assign this claim an infinitesimal probability because off what we now about how the universe works. Everything we truly “know” about how the universe works is the result of evidence-based “ways of knowing”.

      Everything we truly “know” about how the universe works leads to the rational conclusion that the God “hypothesis” (it doesn’t even qualify as one) is almost certainly false.

      • Fred, I know that you think you said something rational there, but actually it’s non-cognitive and non-propositional. You just equated belief in God, which I can support with about 12 different pieces of scientific evidence alone, with green cheese. That’s just an insult. That’s about as far as someone like you can go, because you just don’t know how to move beyond that. Moving beyond insults would take knowledge, and knowledge requires study, which is just too much work for you. It’s just too demanding to have to think.

        You’re not an atheist. You are an agnostic, and an ignorant and incompetent one at that. All you can do when this topic comes up is name-call. You are in fact an agnostic. You don’t know whether God exists. It’s not something you’ve looked into. You may have a personal preference about how to live, but you don’t know, and you’re not able to participate in a rational argument one way or the other, or support one view (theism) or another (atheism) with any hard evidence. You live your life as if God doesn’t exist. You don’t know whether God exists or not. And you can’t really be bothered to find out. But one day, you will find out.

  2. I am atheist. Having seen no evidence that a God/Supreme Being exists, I have no reason to believe one does exist. End of discussion.

    • You’re not an atheist, because you don’t claim that God does not exist and you have no reasons to believe that God does not exist. You don’t know whether God exists. You are an agnostic. You just don’t know one way or the other. An atheist is someone who knows that God does not exist and can furnish forth arguments and evidence. That’s not you. You’re not a serious enough person to have an informed opinion either way.

      It would be more accurate if you signed your name (Ragnostic).

      • Jerry says:

        while to a scientist lack of proof doesn’t mean proof of lack is a standard rule to follow, to the average person not educated in the philosophical rules of rational argument, it generally suffices. Look at that philosophical study called economics – it continually fails us yet we too many people believing in the bull-charm most economists spout out. I personally have seen no proof that the flying spaghetti monster doesn’t exist though I know no such mythical creature exists except in the storied URLs of the http://WWW…I know, I know, I’m really flying spaghetti agnostic…I can refute the entire basis of arguments for the christian god (going to god’s in general gets much more difficult) so I am definitely a christian atheist.

        • Paradox says:

          Economics is a social science, silly!
          And I think that WinteryKnight’s use of the word ‘know’ here is too loose, which could bring out confusion: knowledge is Justified True Belief (the so-called “Gettier Cases,” in my opinion, are poorly formed), and a position is just a belief. An atheist is therefore a person who believes (but does not necessarily know) the proposition “Gods do not exist.”

          Finally, I have yet to see a single refutation of any pro-Christianity arguments. I looked at every pro-Christianity argument present here, and I either missed your comments, or they were not there.
          If you are so confident, I ask you to either show me where you did comment, or else to post a refutation of at least one argument.

  3. David Glassner says:

    Theists claim something exists, or to be more specific, they claim that someone exists. If one is a fundamentalist and evangelical Christian, they believe that this someone has personally tasked them to make others believe as they do.

    Atheists not only reject the initial existence claim, but resent having their rights violated by those who hold nothing more than a faith-based belief. If it weren’t for the second part—the rights violation—more atheists would keep to themselves. The truth of the matter is that most non-belivers do keep their non-religiousity to themselves, and you wouldn’t even know they were atheists unless the subject was broached. Many wouldn’t even identify with the term, “Atheist,” opting for less aggressive terms like “non-religious,” “non-believer,” or the misunderstood term, “Agnostic,” even though in context they are all synonymous with the term, “Atheist.”

    To put it in Michelle’s vernacular, many atheists are “prompted” (or more accurately, compelled) to speak up when Christians exploit their numbers by things like: placing Creationism in Science classes, banning stem-cell research that can save and improve millions of lives, governing the rights a woman has to her own body, use fear and/or guilt to indoctrinate children who have not yet developed full cognitive abilities. to name just a few.

    The person making a claim, is the person that carries a burden of proof. Atheists are not making any existence claim, therefore do not share a burden of proof with those who believe.

    • You’re not an atheist, because you don’t claim that God does not exist and you have no reasons to believe that God does not exist. You don’t know whether God exists. You are an agnostic. You just don’t know one way or the other. An atheist is someone who knows that God does not exist and can furnish forth arguments and evidence. That’s not you. You’re not a serious enough person to have an informed opinion either way.

  4. Frits says:

    OK, so let me get this straight. Saying you lack believe in a god is illogical right? If not please correct me. Let’s take this hypothetical situation. A person is born somewhere who has no knowledge or predispotion toward the idea of a god. As he grows up he explores and learns about the world around him finding logical answers for things that are happening around him. One day he meets a theist. This theist tells him about his own believe in a god and asks what our protagonist believes. Our protagonist is slightly bewildered and explains to the theist that he lacks belief in a god(s) because at no point in his life has he seen any evidence of a god(s) being present in the world. This person is by your stanford definition an atheist (he denies the theist view) who claims a lack of belief in a god. Could you explain to me why you feel (as you have explained in your article) that the position of our protagonist in this story is in any way illogical.

    I find it ironic that Dr Craig is accusing atheists of being disingenous by playing semantics, when he is engaged in exactly the same thing. For his argument to work, the definition of the word atheist HAS to be a certain way. because many people who consider themselves atheists have a very different definition of the word they are disingenous. This would be akin to an atheist claiming that a christian who disavows, for example, the westboro baptist church is being disingenous because according to his definition of the word ‘Christian’ christians are all like Fred Phelps and co. I am sure you’d agree that this would be utterly ludricous statement. Basically Dr. Craig is making a ‘no true scotsman’ statement about who is and who isn’t a ‘true’ ™ atheist.

    I am sure it is frustrating for theists who are arguing atheists that there are no conforming rules on what makes an atheist aprt from the fact that they do not believe in god. That, however, does not make it any less arrogant or indeed disingenous to make sweeping statements about a group of people.

    Sincerely,
    Frits
    Utrecht
    The Netherlands

    P.S. I sincerely doubt whether this comment will be posted. I am after all one of these pesky subjective atheists, and as we all know theists are much more qualified to judge whether someone is an atheist or not. It would show guts if you actually did post this comment by me, and I would applaud you for it. If however, as I suspect, you will not do so, I can only conclude that it is the weakness of your logical arguments that keeps you from doing so. In any event I wish you a nice day,

    • You’re not an atheist, because you don’t claim that God does not exist and you have no reasons to believe that God does not exist. You don’t know whether God exists. You are an agnostic. You just don’t know one way or the other. An atheist is someone who knows that God does not exist and can furnish forth arguments and evidence. That’s not you. You’re not a serious enough person to have an informed opinion either way.

  5. J. Paul says:

    I’ve talked with several atheists who want to reduce atheism to merely not having acquired enough evidence to believe in God. Meanwhile, when asked if they have any evidence that God does not exist, they cannot say in the affirmative. They do not want to call their self an agnostic because they claim this would mean that they are without knowledge and that theists are gnostic, as having knowledge. If they don’t want to call their self an agnostic while maintaining the position, maybe they should just say that they are lost in limbo. Between all of the shouting matches, I do feel very sorry for them. It is a very terrible position to be in.

    • Honestly, I am being bombarded with comments from atheists who won’t make the claim that God does NOT exist, and who cite no evidence. I just keep clicking “trash” because who wants to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t know what they believe and why? And most of them are insulting and/or threatening. I.e. – “you better approve my comment or else, even though I have no evidence and refuse to make any propositional claims”. They think that equating theism with green cheese is something that I should have to respond to! It’s just weird.

      I don’t have time to deal with people who make no testable claims and who offer no evidence. I’m busy! It would be nice if atheists did do their homework, but it’s hard to get people who are animated by hedonism to do any intellectual study. Not all of them are like this, of course, but so far we have been stuck with a bunch of agnostics who are just confused and trying to mask their confusion with boasts, threats and insults. It’s not a pretty sight. They know nothing, but they sure like to open their mouths! I show them the definition in the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, and they respond with their own opinions of what words mean. It’s just the strangest thing!

  6. What trips me up is when atheists say they make a negative claim that God doesn’t exist, and therefore, since I’m making a positive claim on God’s existence, I have the burden of proof. So I guess my question is, what’s the difference between a positive and negative claim?
    Thanks for the post!

    • There is no difference. If they make the claim, then they have to supply evidence to show why their claim is true. Otherwise, it’s not knowledge. And if it’s not knowledge, then we don’t have to care about it.

  7. Matt says:

    Great response from Dr. Craig. You have no idea how many times I’ve been sucked into ridiculous word games with “atheists” over what the word “atheism” means.

  8. Patrick says:

    I don’t think that anyone would say, to use Craig’s example, “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars”, but rather he would say “I don’t know whether or not there is gold on Mars”. Moreover, if someone makes statements like “I don’t believe that …” or “I don’t think that …” in non-religious contexts he would only express himself this way if he was able to give reasons for his view. In the same way if someone says “I don’t believe that God exists” he should give reasons why he thinks so, and if he is not able to do so, should instead say “I don’t know whether or not God exists”. But once someone gives reasons why he doesn’t believe something he clearly makes positve claims.

    • I’ve trashed about 40 comments from atheists so far. Not one piece of evidence was offered for their view. I know that there are solid atheists out there with positive reasons for their view, but the average rank and file atheist that comments here has no evidence for their view. It’s just blind faith, and usually expressed with arrogance and insults. I don’t see any difference between these rank and file atheists and the hijackers who fly planes into buildings. Both groups have views that are accepted on blind faith without evidence. Neither group can make logical arguments. Neither group is able to ground their blind faith in evidence. In both cases we are dealing with extremely low rates of critical thinking and low levels of scientific grounding.

  9. Seth Dillon says:

    When properly defined, atheism does carry a burden of proof. It is not a state of mind shared by infants and animals, but a serious metaphysical position held by those who have consciously denied God’s existence. For the sake of intellectual honesty, proponents of this view should be willing to either defend it, or give up the label associated with it. It makes little sense to call yourself an atheist if you’re unwilling or unable to defend its only claim.

  10. Tom Loghry says:

    I honestly think it is better to just skirt this whole semantics debate and simply ask the atheist some questions. “So you’re an atheist? Interesting. How do you explain the origin of the universe? etc. etc.” We don’t have to literally ask them “Prove to me that God doesn’t exist.” Take the easier route that will get you to same place and just ask them to explain the existence of the universe, morals, and other such topics. Our goal is to lead them to Christ, not to convince them they’re not a real atheist.

  11. Abu Hussein says:

    I must applaud at your wonderful arguement Dr. Craig and Wintery Knight. One cannot be the descriptive word if one doesn’t fit the definition. That is basic logic. One cannot be up when one is down. One cannot be asleep when one is awake. One cannot be flying in the air when one is walking. One cannot be sad when one is happy.

  12. Jon says:

    I have also been thinking about this subject recently. I’ve been meaning to post it to my own new blog, but life has gotten rather hectic, and so I haven’t gotten to it. But as a short illustration, let me use Frits’ unknown person:

    So Mr. Unknown grows up with no knowledge and no inkling towards the idea of God. This person can truly be said to have a “lack of belief in God”, as the idea has never even crossed his mind. Then Mr. Theist comes along and tells him of God. The honest man’s response to such a claim would not be, “No, you’re wrong.” After all, this idea is completely new to him; how does he know? Now, he might be very skeptical since such a claim seems to be radical. This would make the proper response be, “Well, what evidence do you have that this God really exsists?” Regardless of wether or not Mr. Theist can produce any evidence (he can, btw; a lot of it, in fact), Mr. Unknown must weigh what evidence there is or isn’t for both sides. If neither side has any evidence, then he cannot form his belief on reason. If one side has evidence and the other does not; or if one side has more evidence, then the only rational response is to believe the side with the best evidence. It should be noted that in either case, Mr. Unknown can believe one way or the other, regardless of the evidence presented. But a belief that goes against the side with the best evidence is not rational. It is faith.

    The reason we Christians get finicky with our terms like this is because more often than not, things get re-defined in order to avoid uncomfortable positions. When the atheist tells us that we have the burden of proof, we say, “Ok…here’s ours. Where’s yours?” And when the only reply is, “We don’t have to have any.” it tries to sidestep the question, and that is utter nonesense. The only truly honest position one can take after that is “I really don’t know.” or, “I believe on faith alone.” Both sides have the burden of proof. Any truth claim has the burden of proof. I drives me crazy that our culture has crammed materialism down everyone’s throats for so long that the idea that it is the nuetral posistion has become “common knowledge”. The only true nuetral position is that of a lack of knowledge.

    • Exactly right, Jon. If they want to have a position, they have to claim to know something and then produce evidence. Atheism is not neutral, and it is not common knowledge.

  13. charles lewis says:

    “Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God. Compare my saying, “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.” If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars. There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).” Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.”

    i dont see this as correct and i see it as a logical fallacy,,
    Because how many atheists state that they have NO opinion on the matter of god?
    also surely by using the words disbelief or believe by implication they are tied into the belief they are talking about there stance they are stating there opinion ? so when an atheist says i dont belive in god they cannot logically expect to be taken serious when they come out with i dont have a belief in god??????

    • charles lewis says:

      The truth of the matter it seems to me, upon reflection is that what william lane craig said is right, in a sense but in practical use it falls apart.
      Id like to try and be more clear about my above post also,
      alot of atheists i have talked to all repeat the same things, they say “i don’t believe in god, , i don’t have the belief in god,” and then some of them will say “its not a belief and that there words are not a belief”

      That is true in the sense that its not not a belief in GOD , sure they are correct it is not a belief IN GOD. but this is not the issue i have with them, the issue is that they hide behind it as some sort of decent answer which is correct and yet lacks any real clarity.

      Because the truth of the matter is that they have twisted the argument basically just not to agree with you yet again.
      Because the fact IS that what they says is still a belief.

      its still a belief its a belief that GOD does not exist based upon evidence which they call lack of evidence in a lot of cases..

      —————————————–
      if any 1 has read this id like some critic or feed back, i dont want to ever be guilty of the terms “self deception” .

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