Atheists Should Stop Saying Atheism is a Lack of Belief
By: Omar Rushlive L. Arellano
Atheism, in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy: New Edition, “is ostensibly the doctrine that there is no God. Some atheists support this claim by arguments. But these arguments are usually directed against the Christian concept of God, and are largely irrelevant to other possible gods. Thus much Western atheism may be better understood as the doctrine that the Christian God does not exist.”¹
Graham Oppy, a non-theist philosopher whom Dr. Craig described as “scary smart”, defined atheism in his book, “Atheism and Agnosticism”:
“The defining features of atheists and agnostics — i.e. the features whose possession make people atheists and agnostics — are their attitudes towards the claim that there are no gods.
Atheists believe that there are no gods. Hence, in suitable circumstances, atheists affirm that there are no gods and endorse the claim that there are no gods.
Agnostics suspend judgement on the claim that there are no gods. Agnostics neither believe that there are gods, nor believe that there are no gods, despite having given consideration to the question whether there are gods.”²
Based on these two definitions, it’s clear that atheism is a view that rejects the claim that God exists. Nevertheless, we still see atheists that define atheism merely as a lack of belief. Here in the Philippines, we can see a certain page refuting a guy from Tiktok, and the definition of the guy on atheism is: “An atheist is defined as a person who disbelieves or lacks a belief in the existence of a god or gods.”³
We can’t blame him because there are a number of known atheists who make the same definition. Matt Dillahunty and Jenna Belk made this definition in the Atheist Experience in an episode entitled, “What is Lack of Belief?”.⁴ In the episode, Dillahunty answered the question. “What is lack of belief?” simply as “not convinced”.⁵ He makes a distinction between an implicit and explicit atheist. An implicit atheist is someone who lacks a belief in the same way as a rock. This is not what Dillahunty is referring to when he claims that atheists are people who lack a belief. They are explicit atheists according to him because he is an agent who is conscious who could be convinced.⁶ Jenna Belk also clarified this definition when she told the caller, “When you say there’s a god out there and he thinks and does this. Do you believe me when I say that I don’t believe you?”⁷ The caller asked her related to this question about her specific position, and Belk responded that she does not have a position. She just does not believe him. Other definitions mentioned in the video are strong atheism, which Dillahunty finds similar with antitheism, which is a view that accepts not p. And also weak atheism, which is the rejection of p, which I understand as a lack of belief.⁸
From the video entitled, “Atheism Redefined As Absence of Belief”, we can also see other atheists who make similar definitions. In William Lane Craig’s debate with Brian Edwards,
Craig started to state that Edwards said that he did not believe in the existence of God. He clarified by asking if Edwards would defend an atheist or an agnostic position. Edwards responded that he does not understand the distinction because he finds that the definition of an atheist is someone who does not believe in the existence of a god. He adds that it will be foolish for anyone to say that they could disprove the existence of God.⁹ In Craig’s debate with Christopher Hitchens, he asked Hitchens if he is defending agnosticism, atheism, or verificationism. Hitchens clarified his position after much pressing that he finds all the arguments in favor of God’s existence fallacious and unconvincing.¹⁰ Lastly, in the show of Michael Coren, we see him asking the atheist Michael Payton to show proof that God doesn’t exist. Payton responded that we cannot prove a negative.¹¹
In light of this, it’s clear where people who identify as atheists got their definition of atheism. The question is: Is the definition of atheism propagated by Dillahunty, Belk, Edwards, Hitchens, and Payton, a faithful definition of atheism? Is The Oxford Companion to Philosophy and Graham Oppy incorrect?
To answer this question, we will trace how atheism is viewed historically. We heavily relied from Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in The Modern World to help us in this task.
In the French Revolution, McGrath talked about Marquis de Sade and the origins of erotic atheism. He cited de Sade’s Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man to talk about a priest who will hear a confession of a dying man. He said that the priest offers to free the man of her sins if he repents. A theological discussion then followed where it’s said that the dying man dismisses belief in God as a repressive superstition. The priest is said to have invented his god to legitimate his own desires and suppress those of others. The rejection of God is seen as freedom from the shackles that prevents us from enjoying our natural desires.¹²
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72), Karl Marx (1818–83), and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) were hailed as the three great pillars of the golden age of atheism. McGrath mentioned that they are giants that laid the intellectual foundations of atheism with rigor.¹³
First, McGrath cited The Essence of Christianity to show that Feuerbach aims to prove that humanity is oppressed for their invention of God. It’s said that God was a construct of the human mind as a misguided attempt to comfort ourselves in the darkness. God is said to be a projection of our feelings and longings.¹⁴
Second, he cited the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (1843–44), to show that Marx argues that religion dulls the pain of the oppressed, in order for them to cope and accept the status quo. This blinds them in seeing the need to make a radical social change.¹⁵ This is the reason Marx is said to want to abolish the social condition that condemns people to live in their illusions. And the result of this, according to McGrath, is the removal of the causes of religious belief. He also mentions that atheism is seen as the natural ideology of a communist society.¹⁶ Another argument McGrath mentioned from Marx, is that religion in general, and Christianity in particular are “direct outcomes of unjust social conditions”.¹⁷ The origin of the religion is said to be socioeconomic and not intellectual. Compared to earlier atheists that try to show the incoherence of Christianity’s teachings, McGrath mentions that Marx undermines the faith by arguing that Christianity is nothing more but a creation of social forces. Hence, this makes the debate on the specific doctrines of Christianity superfluous.¹⁸
Third, McGrath cited Freud’s The Future of an Illusion (1927) that argues that religious ideas are “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind.”¹⁹ This is said to be similar with Feuerbach, but the difference is that Freud’s arguments were grounded on the emerging discipline of psychoanalysis.²⁰
Aside from the intellectual foundations of atheism, McGrath gave an account of the advance of the conflict theory between the natural sciences and religion in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.²¹ One example he cited is Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) where Calvin is said to say in his Commentary in Genesis that he is condemning everything who believes that the earth is not the center of the universe, because this makes the authority of Copernicus higher than that of the Holy Spirit.²² This is however, a myth, because Calvin never said anything similar to this, but this is traced to the work of F.W. Farrer in 1886 which did not have any citations. Another is William Kingdon Clifford’s (1845–79) Ethics of Belief (1871) where he became famous for his quote: “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”²³ McGrath comments that Clifford had no doubt that his evidential approach would undermine the claims of Christianity, because the religion is said to make supernaturalist claims through revelation and miracles, which are seen to be violations of the natural order.²⁴ Another person that was cited is Charles Darwin. Though McGrath notes that the main reason Darwin doubted the Christian view is its doctrine of hell and not because of evolution²⁵, his Origin of Species that was developed by him and others to include human beings, are seen by Thomas Huxley as useful in his attack of the Catholic Church, and also by the atheist Robert Green Ingersoll as something that destroyed the intellectual credibility of Christianity.²⁶
McGrath also has a chapter on the Victorian crisis of faith and the death of God. In the Victorian crisis of faith, McGrath explains that it’s a growing moral revolt against the leading ideas of Christianity. He cites writers such as J.A. Froude, Matthew Arnold, and F.W. Newman, who is said to abandon their faith becomes they believe that doctrines, such as the original sin, predestination, and substitutionary atonement are immoral. McGrath adds that when Puritans had a high view of a sovereign God who can do whatever pleases Him, the Victorians found the thought deeply disturbing and in conflict with their developed sense of morality.²⁷ Regarding the death of God, one example is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). McGrath explains that the primary emphasis of the mature writings of Nietzsche is that belief in God has become unbelievable. What he meant is that it’s unbelievable as a cultural observation, but not as a philosophical argument. In other words, he is talking about his observation on the shifted mood in Western culture where God has ceased to be plausible.²⁸ He cites The Gay Science to show that for Nietzsche, God has ceased to become a presence in Western culture. Through the parable of the madman, Nietzsche shows that the news of God’s death is slow to travel. Those who know God’s death will experience resistance from those who are not yet aware. The consequences of this death is said to make morality no longer referring to God, but is based on our aspirations and needs. McGrath adds that moral and philosophical truths are now simply beliefs that we create in order to help us cope in the world. Everything becomes merely an interpretation, which are judged by the criteria of its usefulness in our coping in a meaningless world.²⁹
In light of these historical examples, it’s clear that the traditional view of atheism, is the one defined by The Oxford Companion to Philosophy: New Edition and Graham Oppy in his Atheism and Agnosticism.
Furthermore, I just want to talk about McGrath’s discussion in the chapter about the unexpected resurgence of religion. He argues that the “public relations” move of redefining atheism is one of the surest signs of the loss of confidence in the movement. A growing revolt against their dogmatism is said to lead some within their movement to suggest that atheism should just be defined in the same way as those people who call themselves agnostics. McGrath mentions that this implies that atheism has lost its teeth and it seems to be a neat way of extending the people you count as part of your group as the movement comes to a decline.³⁰
McGrath was once an atheist, and this “new atheism” is not the atheism he had embraced. This is his indictment of this “new atheism”:
“But this is not atheism in the grand and dignified sense of the word — a bold and courageous word that I myself was once proud to own. Atheism is not about the suspension of judgement on the God question; it is a firm and principled commitment to the nonexistence of God, and the liberating impact of this belief. The very idea of God is declared to be outdated, enslaving, and a downright self-contradiction. The history of atheism is a mirror image of faith. For at its best and most authentic, atheism is a protest — a protest against the social and personal injustices often linked with religion and certain of its ideas in the past, which are held to be reactionary, oppressive, or even demonic. It is impossible not to respect atheism at these points. To abuse the term by applying it to those who are still thinking about things, or who believe that the matter cannot in fact be settled, represents a dilution of the concept born of demographic desperation.”³¹
In view of this indictment, the decision is left to the atheist. Will they embrace the “grand and dignified” sense of their label? Or will they acquiesce and take refuge in their cowardice? If they brace themselves and accept the former, then they need the intellectual backbone to back up their assertion that God does not exist.
If they accept the latter, then as Dr. Craig has commented, “It turns out that it is the atheist who is believing a view for which there is and can be no evidence.”³² He says:
“Very often atheists themselves admit that they have no evidence of God’s absence, but they try to put a different spin on it. They’ll tell you, “No one can prove a universal negative” (like “There is no God”). They think this somehow excuses them from needing evidence against God’s existence.
But not only is it false that you can’t prove a universal negative (all you have to do is show something is self-contradictory), but more importantly, this claim is really an admission that it’s impossible to prove atheism! Atheism involves a universal negative, you can’t prove a universal negative, therefore, atheism is unprovable.”³³
The choice is yours!
- Honderich, Ted. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 64.
- Oppy, Graham. Atheism and Agnosticism. (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 4
- KaM-Atis Analysis Unit — Kamatist Atheists in the Philippines (@kamatisanalysisunit ), “ARE YOU SURE YOU ARE NOT A CHRISTIAN ATHEIST??? :D,” Facebook, July 14, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/kamatisanalysisunit/videos/405216150871444
- Dillahunty, Matt. “What is Lack of Belief? | Steve-VA | The Atheist Experience 24.32 with Matt Dillahunty & Jenna Belk,” August 13, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fbppxI8hhI
- Dillahunty, Matt. “What is Lack of Belief? | Steve-VA | The Atheist Experience 24.32 with Matt Dillahunty & Jenna Belk,” August 13, 2020. 1:43, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fbppxI8hhI
- Dillahunty, Matt. “What is Lack of Belief? | Steve-VA | The Atheist Experience 24.32 with Matt Dillahunty & Jenna Belk,” August 13, 2020. 2:19–2:23, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fbppxI8hhI
- Dillahunty, Matt. “What is Lack of Belief? | Steve-VA | The Atheist Experience 24.32 with Matt Dillahunty & Jenna Belk,” August 13, 2020. 13:38–13:43, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fbppxI8hhI
- Dillahunty, Matt. “What is Lack of Belief? | Steve-VA | The Atheist Experience 24.32 with Matt Dillahunty & Jenna Belk,” August 13, 2020. 6:01–6:11, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fbppxI8hhI
- Craig, William. “Atheism Redefined As Absence of Belief,” April 27, 2011. 1:17–1:44, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XcuSMQVq5dM
- Craig, William. “Atheism Redefined As Absence of Belief,” April 27, 2011. 5:39–5:43, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XcuSMQVq5dM
- Craig, William. “Atheism Redefined As Absence of Belief,” April 27, 2011. 6:18–6:47, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XcuSMQVq5dM 6:18–6:47
- McGrath, Alister. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in The Modern World. (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 34
- McGrath, Alister, The Twilight of Atheism, 47
- Ibid, 57
- Ibid, 66
- Ibid, 64
- Ibid, 69
- Ibid, 79
- Ibid, 81
- Ibid, 90
- Ibid, 91–92
- Ibid, 104
- Ibid, 99
- Ibid, 131
- Ibid, 149
- Ibid, 150–151
- Ibid, 174
- Ibid, 175
- Craig, William. On Guard. (Colorado: David C Cook, 2010), 149