Some Definitional Drawbacks in Atheism


In a previous article I wrote about how “atheism” is best understood as a belief that there is no God. Those who prefer to describe themselves as merely “lacking God-belief” would do better to describe themselves as “negative atheists” as that is the more precise term.

As a postlude to that article, I think it’s important to state why this stuff matters. I’m not terribly certain that this definitional minutia matters a lot. It matters, but it’s not of ultimate importance. Far more important things can be found for discussion. Nevertheless, this stuff matters enough to merit some observation. Here are some reasons why I think this stuff matters. Hopefully, you’ll agree with me that at least a little ink should be spilt over this subject.

Negative Atheism Comports With God’s existence
First, perhaps the biggest, most glaring problem with the “new” (negative/soft/weak) atheism is that it’s compatible with God’s existence. One’s atheism can be true and God exist. That’s odd, to say the least.

There’s Still an Implicit Burden of Proof
Second, the negative atheist still, presumably, thinks his or her view is rational but that amounts to a claim and claims carry their own respective burden of proof. Put another way, the atheist may be holding to his or her non-theism for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. But if he or she won’t offer an any good reasons, then he cannot wear the mantle of a “reasonable” atheist. Or, at least, no interlocutor owes them the assumption that their atheism is reasonable. His atheism could be dogmatic, fundamentalist, or otherwise thoughtless irrationality. I would assume he thinks his atheism is reasonable, but absent any justifying reasons that he is reasonable, I cannot safely assume he is reasonable. He has an implicit burden of proof, to show that his non-belief is reasonable.

It’s Superfluous
Third, there’s already a whole set of terms addressing these categories effectively making a new sense of “atheism” superfluous. If he has a generalized skepticism regarding all theological objects, then he’s a theological skeptic. If he lacks belief in God, he’s a negative atheist. To reinvent the term “atheism” to mean “lack of God belief” just isn’t necessary, since that semantic domain is already covered without confusingly overlapping different concepts under the same term.

It’s Confusing
Fourth, religious and theological discussions can get quite confusing. Inconsistent or faulty terminology makes things worse. Often I find that when atheists and theists disagree using terms like “faith,” “belief,” “theism,” or “atheism,” the core of our disagreement often boils down to non-standard language. I understand that language is flexible and I’m not denying stipulated or tentative terminology. But even then, it’s helpful to recognize the normal meaning of a term and then specifically stipulate how it’s being used in a non-standard way in this conversation. Without at least some exposure and acceptance of conventional terms, we can’t get very far in our discussions. When we don’t align on key terms,  understanding and entertaining them–whether or not we agree with them–we fail to explore the vast realms of philosophical theology because we’re too busy talking past each other.

It’s Akin to Sitting on the Floor and Calling It A Chair
Fifth, many Atheists who don’t seem to understand that they have a whole history and set of terms already available to them. But either they haven’t looked into it or they are misinformed so they mislabel or try to reinvent things–not thinking it through very deeply. In this way, the history of atheism is like a big house with lots of furniture and those particular atheists are sitting on the floor calling it a chair. People like me are interested in serious academic dialogue on matters like God’s existence, religious truth, and the possibility of miracles. So I’ve done some work to discover these terms and understand my own views and the views of other religions and non-religious outlooks. It shouldn’t be necessary for a Christian theist to have to teach atheists about their own array of conceptual and terminological options, just so we can eventually engage on these topics. I value vigorous dialogue. Ideas matters. And language matters. But ultimately, lives matter more and I’d like to be able to be challenged and critiqued while offering the same on route to helping people. If atheists won’t even accept a chair I’m offering them, from their own ideological “house,” then we probably won’t be able to sit down to a civilized conversation. If we can agree on some of the furniture here. We can then pull up a chairs, draw up a pot of tea, sit down and have a good lively discussion instead of debating whether Atheist Jake is “reasonable” for sitting on the floor.

It’s an Affront to Positive Atheism
Sixth, negative atheism is an implicit affront to positive atheism. Negative atheism implies that positive atheism isn’t convincing enough to persuade them to that position. Positive atheism, being the belief that no God exists, has a burden of proof because it’s making a claim about reality that, in reality, there is no God. That position is either reasonable or it is not. If it is reasonable, then negative atheists would be within their epistemic rights to adopt positive atheism instead of negative atheism. But instead of identifying themselves as “positive atheists,” the negative atheist has declined the offer. Why?

It Risks Duplicity
Seventh, related to the last point, negative atheism risks duplicity. Why would a person present himself or herself as an atheist in the negative (lack of belief) sense when there is, underneath, either positive atheism or agnosticism to better describe one’s position? It’s confusing and unclear, at best, to hide one’s positive atheism or agnosticism underneath a veneer of negative atheism. At worst, it’s strategic dishonesty where a person is pretending to be more open-minded, or less committed than they actually are.

Every positive atheist is also a negative atheist, technically speaking. By believing that no god exists, one is also lacking belief in God’s existence. But then that person is more clearly and precisely described as “positive atheist.” Negative atheism is a superfluous distracting descriptor for them. Meanwhile, one could be an agnostic negative atheist in the sense of refraining from God belief because one thinks that knowledge of God isn’t happening. If some people are atheist in the classical sense then why stipulate a modified sense that hides one’s underpinning position? Audiences are left wondering whether those people can defend that position or whether they are too scared to show their hand for fear it might be a losing hand.

It’s Imprecise
Eighth, as mentioned above, if a person claims to merely “lack belief in God” that position begs for the follow-up question: “Are you the agnostic kind or the (positive) atheist kind?” If one halts at the point of merely “lacking belief in God,” then the intellectual train has stalled out before arriving at a good stop. That position is manifestly imprecise. We can’t be clear about everything, but we would do well to be clear where we can. Here we can be very clear. Any aversion to clarity risks the duplicity mentioned above.

Bad Terminology Hinders Good Thinking
Ninth, bad terms and concepts can get in the way of good thinking. As a Christian theist I affirm that God exists, Jesus is God and God’s son, and He rose from the dead to save us from our sins. I also believe that God gave us rational faculties that, when used correctly, assist us in discovering and understanding how Jesus is the answer to the most important questions in life. I have a vested interest in helping Christians and non-Christians alike to think better. Rationality, sound logic, and critical thinking are preevangelism. They won’t do everything, but they are an important something.

We need strong minds, humble hearts, and willing hands before we are ready to receive the big challenging Gospel message. But critical thinking poses a stark challenge to  the Christian faith as well. Whatever the church has acquired that’s untrue, misstated, or errant–what’s liable to be critiqued into oblivion by discerning congregants.. Christian theology is subject to revision and division. And critical thinking is a big part of that painful process. When it comes to atheists, I want every atheist to be the most rational, most reasonable, and most critically discerning person they can be. I understand that many of them will never come to faith in Christ. But it’s at least a service, a way to love them, regardless of what they do with that well-intended service. And for some of them, their ability to think well and their passionate pursuit of wisdom will drive many of them to their knees before God. I do not apologize for taking confusing terms, and opaque concepts and criticizing them so that atheists and theists can think more clearly.

21 thoughts on “Some Definitional Drawbacks in Atheism

  1. “It shouldn’t be necessary for a Christian theist to have to teach atheists about their own array of conceptual and terminological options, just so we can eventually engage on these topics.”

    One would think this should be true. But in my experience it’s not safe to assume a given Christian holds to specific doctrines even if they are common. Liberal Christians seem to dislike being compared with conservatives and vice versa. Nobody likes being compared with Westboro Baptist. Young Earth creationists will have little to do with old Earth creationists or Christians who believe in evolution. So to engage a Christian necessitates some bit of finding out what type of Christian they are.

    Given that, why wouldn’t it also be necessary for Christians engaging with atheists? Perhaps my atheism doesn’t quite comport with Nietzsche or Russel, but can you say that your Christianity is unchanged from the days of Thomas Aquinas or George Whitefield? All belief systems evolve with the times in which they exist.

    1. No, I would not say Christianity as a whole is unchanged since the 11th century AD or even the 19th century. But then we are talking about a bigger concept than just a negative notion of “no God/-belief.” Christianity entails a whole worldview, lifestyle, culture, etc. I expect it to change over the years. That’s not a terribly big problem since there are still a wide range of reference points to identify what is genuine Christianity and what is not (i.e., creeds, church fathers, encyclicals, doctrinal statements, systematic theology, Scripture, church tradition, etc.).

      1. Given that, I don’t see why you would take issue with how atheists explain their worldview. “Lacking a belief in a god or gods” is simply the minimum common denominator. From there they can and do go in every direction. Christians do the same, and while you may have criteria you use to identify what is true Christianity, people you don’t regard as true Christians (Mormons, possibly?) are out there speaking as Christians. They are under no obligation to follow your criteria, just as I am under no obligation to follow your criteria for what constitutes true atheism.

      2. So which “atheism” are you referring to? It sounds like you mean something other than “atheism” but by using the term “atheism” you are borrowing some of the sexiness it carries, like some rational rebel. Maybe it affiliates you with an atheist community. But if you aren’t making a claim then it doesn’t affiliate you with historic atheism before about 1950. If you are using the term in a nonstandard way it would help people like me to clarify what sense you are using and, perhaps, explain how the bevy of other terms already on offer fail you. You can mean what you want with whatever terms you want to use but dont expext it to make sense to others or serve you well in academic discourse.

  2. So, could I ask, are you a believer in non-sasquatch or non-tooth fairy, non-santa and non-loch ness monster? Could we say you really are a believer in those non-things? After all, you ARE an atheist. Of course you know that. You are a “believer” in non-Zeus, non-Krishna and non-Buddha, right? By your reasoning, I suppose a person *could* say that, but maybe that’s non-sense?

    Does it make sense to say people like us “believe” in non existent beings? Seems quite a stretch to me.

    I don’t sense too much “passionate pursuit of wisdom” here.

    1. Chris, I’m not sure I follow what you are getting at. Are you suggesting the history of the term “atheism” is NOT the history of the term atheism? My definitional work isn’t really a statement about whatever your justifications might be for your own belief or non-belief.

      Regarding your analogy between theism, conspiracy theories and fairy tales. I suggest you offer some reason to think these have similar prima facia credibility levels, namely, they are all equally rejected by everyone outside of gradeschool, by nearly every expert in their field, and all of them lack any first-hand religious type experiences. To my knowledge, theism has billions of believers, lots of people claiming to have seen veridical miracles and first-hand religious experiences. While these may have only disputed value in scientific rubrics, they are at least something. Meanwhile, the flying spaghetti monster, the tooth fairy, and loch ness all lack those sorts of initial credibility markers.

      Moreover, I don’t know of any ancient Greek term describing a lack of belief or the active disbelief towards those other characters. Hence there’s no etymological history to address there. Those objects just aren’t as interesting. Despite how much contemporary atheists want to talk about tooth fairies and sasquatch, they just aren’t the kinds of things that have earned a whole battery of terms and titles in normal English discourse.

      1. Well, umm, I suppose I can’t explain it more. I am wondering however, what your “big challenging gospel message” might be. Is the whole point to make a point and “convince” those who don’t believe the way you believe that what you believe is actually believable? Or maybe it’s about love. . .I dunno.

      2. I think you might be expecting too much out of this blogpost.

        I don’t really have some grand ambition to convert people to Christianity because of some etymology. I really just had the simple aim of correcting a misuse of terms. People can believe or disbeleive what they want but if they are going to call themselves “atheist” and converse as one it would help to be using the same English as the rest of us. I’d imagine it would be confusing if I called myself a theist and by that I was meaning someone who believes in the existence of a guy from new jersey nicknamed “God” because of his epic tan and stellar abs. If we shift our reference points around loosely we risk doublespeak and confusion.

        But again, I don’t think this subject matter is a big deal. It matters, just not a lot.

      3. I don’t deny, however that love is a big deal for Christians and that the Gospel can be quite complicated, especially if our moral, metaphysical, and socio-cultural categories are all garbled up. The Gospel must read like a foreign language to relativists, naturalistic determinists, or humanists.

      4. Really? You claim there are not any individuals who base their belief in Bigfoot, Nessie, UFO’s, or anductions by aliens on personal experiments?
        How are these ‘spiritual experiences’ any more valid than those other than special pleading?
        I do not believe in any deities. An atheist.
        I do not claim to be able to know that deities don’t or can’t exist. Agnostic – I don’t claim to know – in particular with regard to a fuzzy concept that is claimed to be outside of this universe.
        I don’t believe that intelegent beings have visited Earth. I can not claim to know that – but the combo of no evidence of any life outside of Earth and no evidence or sound & valid arguments for the claim That arty has been visited – non belief in the claim of visits is rational and corect, even if later shown to be incorrect.
        Same with deities – no evidence or sound & valid argument any exist, the position of not believing in the claims as being the rational and correct position to hold. Not a theist or A-theist = atheist. If you want a more specific position then agnostic atheist or a 6.9 on Dawkins’ scale.

      5. I overstated myself regarding subjective experience of conspiracy theories. A better phrasing would be that fairy tales and conspiracy theories are sorely lacking in terms of direct religious experience. There may be thousands of people claiming alien abduction but there are millions and perhaps billions claiming to have had religious experiences.

        As to your other points I think you are confused on the subject of “belief.” in Theism one need not “believe in” God in some religious and salvific sense. One is merely assenting/agreeing with the notion of “God exists.” If a person agrees then they are a theist.

        Next, knowledge is ALWAYS a matter of belief. It is impossible to know something without believing it to be true. So you characterization of agnosticism is distorted to make room for your redefinition of “atheism.” classically understood, atheism denies God’s existence Theism affirms God’s existence and agnosticism makes no claim either way on the grounds that such things are not suited to “justified true belief” (the main definition of “knowledge”). The agnosticism position propounded by Huxley is nuanced into two further camps, one which says one can’t know if God exists (hard agnosticism ) the other says more modestly, one doesn’t know whether God exists (soft agnosticism).

        With atheism, since it’s meaning etymologically is a negation not of Theism but of theos (GK: atheos) it is a denial or negation of God. It’s a metaphysical claim about what exists or doesn’t exist. Your modified sense of “atheism” would have to be a new word that’s just spelled the same since you are talking about a negation of Theism (“not theism”). Such an “atheist” is making no claim about reality per second but about psychology–“I lack God belief.” That’s a different etymology and so it’d a different word even if it’s spelled the same as classic atheism.

  3. I’m not referring to any particular atheism here. What I’m talking about is your apparent desire to deal only with atheism as it existed 60 years ago rather than its current form. I can’t think of any school of thought that would be willing to restrict itself in such a way, and moreover atheism isn’t some sort of monolithic organization with standards for membership. It is at best a group of people in and out of academia whose only commonality would be to agree that any claims made in favor of a specific deity are unfounded until evidence is provided for the claim.

    If that frustrates you, it would be your problem and not the concern of anyone who refers to themselves as atheist. Certainly there won’t be a stampede of people to relabel themselves because you think you’ve found what amounts to a clerical error.

    1. Stan, did you read the article? Check the dates on those sources I cited. Your kind of atheism may be one way and there is a growing trend in that direction. But it still a historical novelty and has not yet reached the level of standard English.

      Theres a deeper issue here thats not as trivial as this terminological dispute. That ossue is over the dumbing down of atheism–as with the dumbing down of theists and america generally–where we don’t even unserstand the words we ascribe to. Its kind of poser and inauthentic not to mention it risks duplicity when a person claims atheism but instead holds to agnosticism.

      1. I read it. It reflects a desire to shoehorn a shades-of-gray reality into a black and white framework. If I say I’m agnostic would you be able to ascertain whether I am simply undecided or making a claim as to whether the question of the existence of a god is answerable? In my experience the term “agnostic” is far too broad for clarity. The only useful classification scheme I’ve seen is the graph that lays out the dual axes of theist/atheist and gnostic/agnostic which you clearly dislike. If you don’t believe me, try posing as an agnostic for a while and see how much you have to explain your position.

        Perhaps that is duplicitous to you, but a perspective that claims only those with advanced degrees can address these issues smacks of hubris to me. I can get that from Reza Aslan. Honestly, an ivory tower perspective often serves only those who live there. And I deal with PhDs enough to know how often they assert an unwarranted authority.

      2. As to your point about the dumbing down of America, I suggest you start with the theists. You’ve got an entire generation that seems determined to reject any form of literacy other than a theocratic one. As long as you’ve got that behind you, you’ll get little traction with atheists.

      3. Stan, I’m willing to accept responsibility for my part in the dumbing down of America. Are you? I’ll admit my internet/tv/video game preoccupations. Will you?

        I suspect that anyone who treats the dumbing down of America as if there’s a single or otherwise simple cause is probably mistaken. We have various technological factors cultivating impatience, but wisdom and knowledge tend to require patience to soak in. We have an entertainment based media (see Neil Postman’s, Entertaining Ourselves to Death–I’m reading it right now). We also have an increasingly illiterate society when it comes to long sentences, big ideas, complex grammar, and sophisticated speech. People can speak and read English, but the average reading level that publishers target is around 5th grade reading level. I’ve had college students insert, “LOL” and “OMG” into college essays in my class.

        As for your point about theocracy, I don’t personally know of any theists who support theocracy. Perhaps we are using the term “theocracy” differently.

      4. Part of the cinfusion of terms is that theists have had the upper hand in defining the meaning of the lable for so long. So many theists are convinced that not believing in deities is equivialant to claiming that deities don’t exist. Though, it is also surprising how many also claim we either hate God and/or worship Satan – they don’t seem to keep straight the shoebox they create to put us in even.

  4. It used to be 8th grade reading levels. Oh, well.

    I can probably take more credit than you for the dumbing down since I work in the video game industry (at present, it wasn’t always so), if you assume video games are the cause of it. I would say they simply replace alternate distractions. If you go back to the 60’s or 70’s, the time spent on computers would have been spent watching TV, and neural activity for TV watching is lower than what you find for anything interactive like a video game. But consider this.

    – The rise in college enrollment has continued from WW2 until the present level around 70%. If you go back to the 17th and 18th century only a tiny fraction of people attended college while the rest were simple laborers.
    – This means the number enrolling must almost certainly have exceeded the number who are suited for it. Colleges pursuing profits over graduating educated people would have a lot to do with that. It’s like a sub-prime market for education. The inevitable result is capable students sharing space with the LOL and OMG writers. There’s no need for them to graduate as long as they can pay.
    – The factors which determine whether a person will be suited for college are set very early in life, with perhaps the biggest factor being poverty. Poor kids have less stimulation and are shown to have a decreased brain mass. Poor parents are less able to provide stimulation because they are working multiple jobs and can’t afford tutors or other educational aids. Meanwhile, society is producing policies which only exacerbate poverty. We’re a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” society, never mind if you can’t afford the bootstraps.
    – At the same time, nearly everyone has internet access. What would you expect them to do with it if they’re unintelligent or uneducated?

    You’re correct, “theocratic” was a misstatement, although I do know of people who want a theocracy in the US, Rick Santorum being one example. What I meant was that people who are religious often set sharp boundaries for what it is acceptable to become literate about. Not sure what the term for that would be, other than ill-advised.

    1. Stan, I agree with you about a lot of what you just said. I see signs of hope in growing/steady college enrollment. The internet, while a mixed blessing, has put a universe of knowledge at most people’s finger tips. But it remains true that a lot of our concept of “intelligence” has itself shifted to suit a shallow medium of information, perpetually biased by the constraints of entertainment and dollar signs. I have students who have graduated high school, at a respectable private school, college-bound A-B students who have never read a complete book. They have never analyzed a movie for it’s greater significance (worldview commentary, socio-cultural importance, theological/philosophical import, etc.). They mistake texting competence with “literacy,” and have the attention span of goldfish. Unless they take a class with debates, or worldview training, or philosophy and logic they are liable to be wholly unequipped to seriously analyze popular rhetoric for it’s soundness. All of that means that when it comes to feeding our lives with a diet of good heavy ideas, and thick information most people don’t even know how to chew.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.