A lot of people are saying ‘atheism’ is what we call it when people don’t believe in gods.1 The more traditional meaning of ‘atheism’ is the belief that no gods (or certain types of gods) exist. This newer (nontraditional) type of atheism is sometimes called ‘soft atheism’ as opposed to ‘hard atheism.’ I will describe atheism, consider reasons that the newer definition of ‘atheism’ can lead to confusion, and I will consider reasons why people might prefer this newer definition.
There is a difference between lacking a belief in gods and believing that gods don’t exist. To believe gods don’t exist is an example of lacking a belief in gods, but another example of lacking a belief in gods is being undecided if gods exist. Some people don’t believe a god exists and don’t believe that no gods exist either. I lack a belief that there’s intelligent life on any specific planet other than Earth, but I also lack the belief that Earth is the only planet with intelligent life. You could say that I’m undecided about where intelligent life exists (other than on Earth).
What exactly does it mean to have a belief? Some people might say they are 90% sure that gods don’t exist, but still don’t disbelieve in gods. I don’t think they use the word ‘belief’ properly. My view is that there can be degrees of belief. I don’t think you have to be able to guarantee that some statement is true to believe it. For example, I don’t think we can guarantee that scientific theories are true, but I think we can (and should) often believe scientific theories are true.
The soft atheist definition of ‘atheism’ is not the historical way people used the term, but I don’t think there is necessarily a correct definition for it—it’s a word a use for communication and is not part of the fabric of the universe. My main concern is that we use language in ways that aid in communication. I prefer the more traditional definition because I think the new definition can lead to confusion.
The main problem with the soft definition of ‘atheism’ is that it is strange to say that people who are undecided are atheists. A person who is undecided could very well become a theist after studying the relevant arguments. Such a person could simply not know what to think at this point in time. Do many people say they are atheists because they are undecided? I haven’t met many people like that, and I doubt there are many. I think almost everyone who says they are an atheist really do believe that gods don’t exist.
Also consider how some people claim that there are arguments for atheism. Is an argument to be undecided an argument for atheism? I wouldn’t think so. I would think an argument for atheism would be an argument to believe that gods don’t exist.
Another illustration of how strange it could be to think an atheist could be undecided is the distinction between agnostic atheists and gnostic atheists. Agnostics don’t think we can know that gods exist (or don’t exist), but gnostics think we can. An agnostic theist is someone who believes a god exists, but doesn’t think we can know that a god exists. We need a term for those who reject the existence of gods who are also agnostic. Calling them ‘agnostic atheists’ seems like the most appropriate option. Other people could be said to be agnostic and undecided.
A gnostic theist is someone who believes in a god and thinks we can know that that a god exists. What should we call someone who rejects the existence of gods and thinks we can know that gods don’t exist? ‘Gnostic atheism’ seems like the best option, and we can say people who think we can know if gods exist, but are undecided are “gnostic and undecided.” Some people are undecided about whether gods exist, but thinks other people who have studied the issue carefully could know. I don’t think this person should be called a ‘gnostic atheist.’
Why do so many people want to define ‘atheism’ as nonbelief?
I know of three potential reasons to define ‘atheism’ as nonbelief:
One, in The Presumption of Atheism (1977) Anthony Flew defined ‘atheism’ as the lack of belief in gods because he wanted to argue that atheism is the default position—the burden of proof in a debate is on the theist (or whoever makes any other controversial claim). If someone is undecided about the existence of god, then that person is not making a claim one way or another. Flew also pointed out that a debate about the existence of gods is pointless if we don’t have a meaningful definition of ‘god.’ Many people claim that god exists, but refuse to give a clear definition of ‘god.’ It would be unfair to give an atheist the burden of proof to prove that gods don’t exist whenever we don’t even know what ‘god’ refers to. Even so, we can try to argue that any clearly defined type of ‘god’ doesn’t exist, and I think Flew would agree that those who say gods don’t exist would have the burden of proof.
What we call the ‘burden of proof’ usually refers to the requirement for people to argue for their controversial claims during a debate, which is required to rationally persuade others to agree with the controversial claim. A theist will have to give an argument to rationally persuade an atheist to become a theist, but someone who claims gods don’t exist will also need arguments to rationally persuade others to agree with that assertion as well.
I’m not convinced that Anthony Flew gave us a good reason to define atheism as nonbelief. We can simply say that those who make controversial claims have a burden of proof, and the assertion that no gods exist (when ‘god’ is defined properly) is a controversial claim.
Two, a related reason some might say that atheism is nonbelief is because some atheists have no interest in arguing for their belief that gods don’t exist. They might think that saying atheism is lacking a belief in gods would be a way to get people to leave them alone. However, I don’t think atheists (or theists) necessarily have to argue for their beliefs. They can just say they aren’t interested in doing that type of thing. If we have a good reason to think the belief that gods don’t exist (or that they do) is irrational, then we might think those with such potentially irrational beliefs need to make sure their beliefs aren’t irrational. However, I don’t know of good arguments to that effect at this point in time. (The problem of evil might be a reason to think that one type of theism is irrational, but not that all types of theism are irrational.)
Third, some people might also say that whoever has a belief and fails to argue for their belief is being irrational or just “has faith.” Theists often claim that atheists “have faith” that gods don’t exist. The assumption seems to be that atheists have a belief, and that all beliefs are irrational (or a product of faith) unless there’s a good argument for it. However, I am not yet convinced that anyone is necessarily irrational for refusing to argue for their beliefs (or that such a person’s belief is necessarily a product of faith).
Whether or not a belief is irrational is a somewhat different issue to having the burden of proof in a debate. We might say that some beliefs seem irrational (like the contradictory belief that intelligent life exists on another planet, but intelligent life doesn’t exist on another planet). Some people seem to think that all beliefs are irrational that haven’t yet been proven, so they might say that those who believe gods don’t exist are being irrational unless they can prove their belief to be true. I see no good reason to agree with that, and I think we have a good reason to think that not all beliefs have to be proven. If all beliefs have to be proven, then we would need an argument for every belief, but we need premises to argue for a belief. We would then need to argue for those premises, and we would then have even more premises that need to be proven. No one can argue for premises on and on forever like that. (Go here for more information.)
Even so, I do think that arguments and debate can be related to what we should believe. I think we should try to argue for our controversial beliefs, and we should try to find out when our beliefs are false.
In conclusion, using the term ‘atheism’ as nonbelief can lead to confusion because it seems strange to say that people who are undecided are atheists. So far I also know of no good reason to use the term atheism in that way. An atheist might want to say that the burden of proof is on the theist (and not on the atheist), but whoever makes a controversial assertion during a debate has the burden of proof. An atheist might have no interest in arguing that no gods exist, but I don’t think they necessarily have to. Finally, an atheist might worry that saying gods don’t exist is irrational or requires an act of faith, but I don’t think rationality requires that we argue for all our beliefs anyway.
- Do Default Positions Exist?
- Beliefs are Innocent Until Proven Guilty
- Is a Lack of Belief the Best We Can Do? (The Philosopher’s Groan)
- Atheist, Gnostic, Theist, Agnostic (The Freethinker)
- Atheistic Religiphobia #1: Fear of Believing Anything At All About Gods (Camels With Hammers)
- Definition of Atheism (Part 2) (Evil Bible)
1 I believe that Anthony Flew was one of the first to define ‘atheism’ as nonbelief, and he made it clear that this was unusual. In The Presumption of Atheism (1977) he said, “The word ‘atheism’, however, has in this contention to be construed unusually. Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of ‘atheist’ in English is ‘someone who asserts that there is no such being as God’, I want the word to be understood not positively but negatively. I want the originally Greek prefix ‘a’ to be read in the same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is read in such other Greco-English words as ‘amoral’, ‘atypical’, and ‘asymmetrical’. In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter.”