Defining Atheism: Belief in No God or No Belief in God
Courtesy of Causecast

Is Atheism the absence of God-belief or the present belief that there’s no God?

“Atheist” is a translation of the Greek: atheos using the alpha privative “a” and the term for God “theos.” It does not merge the alpha private with the ENGLISH TERM “theist” or “theism.” Rather “atheist” as a whole word is a translation of the whole word “atheos.” The alpha private negates theos, as in, “no God” as opposed to negating theism which would be “no God-belief.” As it stands with atheism, if the original meaning were drawn entirely from etymology it would mean simply “godless,” “ungodly,” or “without God.” And this indeed is one of the definitions we find for the term in its Ancient sources. In that time, it also had the primary definition of “denying God/gods” which followed by implication from the notion of “godless;” if a person truly believed in a grand judge over all the universe he would not live/teach/think as if no such being existed.

However the idea of withholding/refrainin-from belief about some God, though present in ancient Greece and Rome, tended to be subsumed under terms like “skepticism” (gk: skepticos) or “materialism” or “atomism” (a form of materialism). Atheos however was used to describe a different phenomenon. Thus the effective meaning of atheos is something like, “[immorally] godless” or “disbelief in God.”

Were someone to translate ancient and classical uses of atheos into “no belief in God” they would do an injustice to the text since that is simply not how Greeks and Romans were normally using the term when they first coined it, nor when they continued using it over the years. Etymology (study of word origins, and composite meaning from word parts) is only one way that words take on meaning.When we apply etymology to the English word “atheism,” we have “athe” (from atheos “no God/Godless”) + “-ism” (belief). Belief then characterizes the “no God” hence we have, “Belief in no God.” And the alpha privative, as always, characterizes the word to which its affixed. So the belief is positive, the object of belief in negative. It is “belief in no God” or “belief in Godless[ness].” For etymology to achieve the negative definition of atheism, a popular definition today, from the term would have to be something like, “theos-a-ism” or, “No belief [in a] God.” The etymology argument then is not a friend but a foe of the negative definition of atheism.

In ancient Rome we find the positive form of atheism exercised when Christians were being persecuted and martyred for being “atheists.” They did not simply lack belief in the Roman Gods, rather they consciously rejected all God’s but one. The “lack of belief in God” was already termed “Theological Skepticism.” That is, “theological skepticism” was a disposition of distrust, doubt, or non-belief regarding theological objects, namely, God’s existence. The term Atheos was not a good fit for that concept. Atheism was a somewhat non-skeptical position for it took a position, making a claim that “no God exists.”

Compared to the plethora of Gods in the Roman Pantheon, rejecting all but one is practically equivalent to atheism. Hence Christians were accused of atheism. Even ambivalence could have been tolerated among the Romans as they did with many agnostic philosophers (though the term “agnostic” had not been invented yet). But conscious rejection of the Roman Gods was seen as an intolerable affront to the state. As we can expect from ideas that are deeply rooted in human nature and the human psyche, the idea of “atheism” survived for centuries with both connotations intact: “godless” and “disbelief in God.”

However in recent times the definition has come under question by atheist themselves. Three motivating factors can be identified.

Strategic Advantage
First, in debates it is generally the better strategy to rebut the opponent’s case rather than to have to defend one’s own case. A softened definition of atheism allows for this. With negative atheism, the atheist doesn’t carry any burden of proof since that burden is on the participant/s making a positive case of some sort: “God exists” or “God does not exists.” But to claim, “I have no belief about God” is not a positive case, and therefore requires no defense in contemporary debate formats.

Presumption of Atheism
Second, Antony Flew’s important article “The Presumption of Atheism” argues that the default or neutral position for humanity is atheism. Building on the point just made, Flew argues that the burden of proof is on the theist to demonstrate that “belief in God” is reasonable. Essentially, Flew is arguing that negative/soft/weak atheism is man’s natural disposition, or if it is not, it is the intellectually justified default position. It is up to the theist to make a positive case for theism.

Logical Positivism
A third factor which might have played a part in this redefinition is the onset of British positivism, like that of A.J. Ayer. Ayer, among others, suggested that claims must be empirically verifiable or analytically (by-definition) true if they are to be linguistically meaningful. Theology, for Ayer, is not true, but nor is it even false. It is without meaning since its reference to God lacks analytic veracity and empirical testability the notion cannot even be entertained as a proposition. It is like trying to argue “I believe in ‘ouch’” or “I don’t believe in ‘um’.” These terms “ouch” and “um” are emotive/gibberish terms that defy cognitive belief or disbelief. “Truth” and “falsity” do not apply to them, and, according to Ayer, nor does it apply to any God-talk. Ayer’s positivism was all the rage for a while, but today, few people are conscious advocates of this “logical positivism,” even though its scope and influence is incredibly widespread. Ayer’s positivism ultimately proved self-defeating since all the linguistic expressions of the theory of positivism unfortunately, failed to satisify their own asserted criteria for meaningfulness.

Understanding these three possible influences together: 1) The strategic advantage of donning a negative definition of atheism (“no belief in a God”), 2) combined with the argument of “The Presumption of Atheism,” and 3) a positivistic disposition–it makes complete sense why many contemporary atheists want to define their own camp in negative terms as “without theism, no belief in a God” instead of the historic and traditional usage of atheism as the positive position of “disbelief in God.” But does this view not overlap with agnosticism?

The Complicating Landscape of Non-Theism
Following the secularizing influence of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Freedom of Religion rights in America, and later Darwin’s Origin of The Species, the landscape of non-theism had grown quite complicated. To help organize the ideological furniture in the growing domain of disbelief, Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term “agnostic” in 1889. He used this term to describe his own conviction that knowledge about God’s existence or non-existence is impossible. He did not consider himself an atheist, but found himself being called one. He was not a positive atheist–for he was not denying God’s existence. Nor was he a theism–for he was not affirming God’s existence. Nor was he simply a theological skeptic–since he believed that knowledge of God was not yet (or perhaps ever) possible. His agnosticism is practically indistinguishable from the modern category of “negative atheism” which also lacks belief in God, and also allows that it God’s existence could prove unknowable even if He/she/it really existed.

Not surprisingly, the borders between “atheism” and “agnosticism” are often blurry or invisible. So for atheism to be distinct, defensible, and publically viable, it needs the help of some categorical distinctions since atheists are widely diverse and do not necessarily hold a party line when they don the moniker “atheist.” Somewhere in the Modern era there seems to have been a division then in both Agnosticism and Atheism, rendering four categories from the previous two.

*Negative/Weak/Soft Atheism–”no belief in God”
*Positive/Strong/Hard Atheism–”belief in no God”
*Weak Agnosticism–”knowledge of God does not exist”
*Strong Agnosticism–”knowledge of God is impossible.”

And another catch-all term can be added to these:

*Theological Skepticism–distrust, disbelief, or doubt regarding theological objects

These categories are used by Michael Martin, Antony Flew, and William Rowe. I use these categories myself and find them quite helpful in clarifying some of the subtleties that arise in these debates. However, these are not standardized, and do not necessarily reflect the long history or widescale contemporary usage of “agnostic” and “atheist.” I recommend these categories for clarity of usage, but we should be careful not to follow, thoughtlessly, the contemporary popular usage of “atheist” and “atheism” as being weak atheism or weak agnosticism. Etymology, history, and much contemporary standard sources defy that definition. Don’t believe me? Check some of the sources listed below.

At this point you may be wondering why all this matters? What difference does it make? At minimum, clear thinking and precise language are generally good. We should be clear and precise where we can. Besides that general benefit I give, in a different article, nine reasons why this definitional problem with atheism is important.

Positive Atheism is the overwhelming sense of the term “Atheism” according to its historic usage
(1931) Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius, “The Meaning of Atheism,” Little Blue Book no. 1597, box 24. Self-Published under Haldeman-Julius Publishing, 1931.
(1942) Ferm, Vergilius. “Atheism” in Dictionary of Philosophy. Edited by Dagobert D. Runes. New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams & Co. Philosophical Library.
(1951) julius/meaning_of_atheism.html
(1960) Webster’s New World Dictionary, Vol. 1. Cleveland and New York: World Publishing Company, 1960
(1967) Edwards, Paul “Atheism” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 1. Collier-MacMillan, 1967. p. 175.
(1973) Edwards, Paul, ed., “Atheism” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1973
(1984) Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, MA, 1984.
(1993) Webster’s 3rd International Dictionary Unabridged. Springfield, MA 1993.
(1998) Rowe, William L. “Atheism” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward Craig. Routledge, 1998.(2009) Nielsen, Kai. “Atheism”. Encyclopædia Britannica.

Positive atheism is also the primary or exclusive definition for “atheism” in the following current sources:
(2015) Oxford Compact Dictionary– (Search performed May 23, 2015)
(2015) Oxford Learners Dictionary– (Search performed May 23, 2015)
(2015) Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary– (Search performed May 23, 2015)
(2015) Merriam-Webster Dictionary– (Search Performed 23 May 2015.
(2015) Random House Dictionary via– (Search performed 23 May 2015).
(June/July 2015) Simon Blackburn, interviewed in Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas 99 (June/July 2015), accessed 23 May 2015 at:

Blackburn answers the question “what do you personally mean by ‘atheism'” by saying, “Actually I prefer the label ‘infidel’ to that of ‘atheist’. I suppose an atheist thinks there is a definite, intelligible question to which the answer is ‘no’, and agnostics also think there is such a question, and that the right answer is ‘don’t know’. But I doubt that there is a definite intelligible question about ‘the existence of God’.”–See below, (2008) Simon Blackburn

Representing Modern trends to normalize negative atheism as the standard sense of “atheism” are the following sources
Dan Barker, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1992, pg. 99
(1990) Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification Temple Univ. Press, 1990, pg. 463
(2008) Simon Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy 2d rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford, 2008. [Blackburn is an atheist].
(2015) American Atheists Society–
(2015) (includes extensive referencing and quotations of original sources)–


12 thoughts on “Defining Atheism: Belief in No God or No Belief in God

  1. I think your definitions are spot on. However, I do not see much benefit for the theist side in having debates with positive atheists. In such a debate, should the theist “win” we are no closer to knowing if a God exists or not.

  2. Thank you 420olon, I’ve had some extended exchanges with atheists who won’t grant any of this line of argument.

    Concerning your second point, I see great benefit in debating positive atheists, much more so than debating negative atheists, assuming both sides are approaching the debate with some humility and at least some willingness to learn from the exchange. If evidence is given such that God’s existence now seems more probable than not, the atheist stands on his commitment to rationality and to apportioning belief towards the more probable explanation. His own commitment to truth, reason, and honest inquiry then becomes the friend of theism. Of course, the theist is also at risk too. He cannot sit comfortably in his theism presuming to have all the answers if he’s genuinely honest with himself, humble in approaching these kinds of debates, and willing to concede when his position is undermined. There are some theists who abandon their belief in God just as there are atheists who abandon their disbelief/lack of belief in God.

    Usually, there’s no “full win” or “full defeat” as if the war for God is won or lost in a single debate or a couple debates. Usually it’s a battle here, some ground there. And the individual has to figure out where he’s going to affix his belief system within the parties of theism and atheism. Some forms of atheism, for example, are just barely different from theism, others are poles apart. And that range of options can be determined through free-inquiry and the courageous humility of investigating truth. Debates are just one way of inquiring into these issues.

  3. You’ve just described the merits of debating the existence of gods, not positive atheism per se.

    Would you agree that all positive atheists are also negative atheist but not vice versa?

    1. So by “debates with positive atheists” do you mean “debating the nature/definition of positive atheism?” If so, I’m not sure that point matters enough to merit the effort. I assumed you meant “debating about whether God exists.”

      There’s a sense in which your question is correct: if a person believes there is no God, he also lacks belief in God. But I’d contend that’s a trivial sense because the negative and positive positions constitute a different view on the evidence. Preusumably, if both sides are fair and reasonable people, they have reached their positions by concluding that, given evidence X, more likely than not no God exists. The positive atheist however takes an epistemic side, a knowledge position claiming to have at least probabilistic knowledge that no God exists. The negative atheist refrains from a knowledge claim, does not take a side epistemically, and does not commit on the probabilities that they’ve so far gathered.

      Put another way, the positive atheist may overlap with negative atheism, in that both are non-theists, but if they were honest with themselves they’d see a party division between them–the negative atheist is telling the positive atheist that they haven’t done enough to show that God does not exist and merit active disbelief.

      1. It is not trivial if you are having anything like a formal debate. You should clearly set out in advance what claim is being made, which side is making the claim and who has the burden of proof.

        The only issue I think with debating theists on is is there evidence for a god and is it acceptable? This is negative atheism or positive theism. The theist bears the burden.

  4. Couldn’t agree more with this article, i’m an atheist and i’m tired of that “lack of belief” rhetoric.

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