People disagree about what atheism means. This essay aims to communicate my understanding of the term, and a few related topics. My intent is not to prescribe, but to better describe my specific position on the matter and to encourage contemplation.
This article offers no arguments for or against God. The purpose is to explore and define the different positions that people have on whether God exists or not.
- Atheism is the lack of belief in the existence of a God or gods
- Agnosticism is the belief that it is not possible to know whether God exists or not
- It is possible to be both an atheist and an agnostic because the terms address two different considerations—that of belief and knowledge—which are not mutually exclusive
If the limited summary above are the reader’s only takeaway, I would feel reasonably satisfied. However, these points do not paint the whole picture and I would encourage readers to consider the full essay for nuance and completeness.
In this essay:
- “God” is broadly defined as a supernatural being with a will that intentionally intervenes in the natural universe
- For simplicity and style, “God” is substituted for “a God or gods”. All references of God should be read to include both monotheism and polytheism
- “Lacks belief”, “rejects belief”, “does not believe”, and “disbelieves” are used interchangeably to mean “lacks belief”. It should be taken that “disbelieves x” does not mean “believes not x”
Part 1—What Atheism Is
To define what atheism is, we would do well to first clarify what atheism is about. So I’ll start there.
Atheism is about belief. Specifically, atheism describes a position with respect to belief on whether God exists. In other words, atheism, like theism, concerns belief.
What is belief? Eric Schwitzgebel writes:
“Contemporary philosophers of mind generally use the term ‘belief’ to refer to the attitude we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true. To believe something, in this sense, needn’t involve actively reflecting on it.”
There is a difference between what we believe and what we know.
It is accepted that belief is a condition for knowledge[2a], meaning that knowledge is a subset of belief. In other words, to know something is to believe it, but crucially, if we do not know something, we necessarily still either believe it or not.
There is not an agreed-upon definition for knowledge in epistemology (the philosophical study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge). Many philosophers still depend on Plato’s definition: knowledge is justified true belief.
That is, a person (S) knows something (p) if:
- p is true
- S believes that p
- S is justified in believing that p[2b]
The justification condition means that it is not knowledge if a person believes a true thing by luck. In 1963, Edmund Gettier showed there are possible cases where justified true belief is not knowledge because the justified belief is only true as a result of luck. Ever since, philosophers have tried to solve this problem by strengthening the justification condition, or by adding “degettiering” conditions (JTB+X), or by proposing new definitions for knowledge[2c]. To this day, no consensus has been reached.
For the purpose of this essay, which is concerned about belief more so than knowledge, we may comfortably ignore the Gettier problem. “Knowledge is justified true belief” will suffice.
Why Theism and Atheism Matter
It goes without saying that we should aim to know as much as possible. But it follows that we believe more things than what we actually know, and because it is evident that our beliefs affect our behaviour, what we believe is at least as important as what we know, if not more so.
Belief in the Christian God, for example, will likely influence the believer’s attitude on topics such as education, women’s rights, and climate change, and their attitude will likely affect how they vote for public policy, which in turn, will affect people who do not share the Christian’s belief.
For this reason, the topics of theism and atheism matter.
What is Agnosticism?
“I’m an agnostic, not an atheist,” is a familiar point of view in my experience. One plausible implication hidden in this view is the belief that atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive.
In truth, a person can be both an atheist and an agnostic. This is possible because [on the question whether God exists] atheism describes a position with respect to belief, while agnosticism describes a position with respect to knowledge, two separate concerns.
Agnosticism is the belief that it is not possible to know whether God exists or not[8a].
As reasoned before: if we do not know something, we must still either believe it or not. It follows that an agnostic still either believes that God exists or not. Put differently, an agnostic is necessarily a theist or an atheist.
Agnosticism is not, as some may believe, a middle ground between theism and atheism.
What is Atheism?
Following are three definitions for atheism:
- The lack of belief in the existence of a God or god[8b]—the Oxford Dictionaries definition, and it is a good one
- The rejection of all theistic claims of God’s existence—I dislike and avoid this definition because people can misunderstand what is meant by the word “rejection”, ascribing unwarranted qualities such as wilfulness to the atheist. In context, rejection simply means disbelief.
- When you cannot truthfully affirm, “I believe God exists”—my preferred definition. It is my own wording of a description I read somewhere. I like this definition because it communicates the essence of atheism while also encouraging contemplation. People may just wonder, “Am I an atheist?”
Note: the only fact that we can extract from the single label, “atheism”, is that all atheists do not believe in the existence of God. Inferring any quality beyond this fact is speculation.
Negative and Positive Atheism
So, atheists lack belief in the existence of God.
Many people take this to mean that atheists must therefore believe that God does not exist. On the flip side, there is an opinion that atheism is only ever the lack of belief in God’s existence. Both these views are false.
In this context, there are two types of atheism, as described by Antony Flew:
- Negative Atheism—the lack of belief in the existence of God. Also known as Weak or Soft Atheism
- Positive Atheism—the belief that God does not exist. Also known as Strong or Hard Atheism
What is the difference between “the lack of belief in existence” and the “belief in non-existence”? Are they not effectively the same? We may be tempted to think so, but that would be a mistake.
To show the difference and why the distinction matters, Matt Dillahunty’s analogy about gumballs proves helpful.
Consider a gumball machine jam-packed with gumballs, and consider the fact of the gumballs being even or odd in number.
We can make the following claims about this binary proposition:
- An even number of gumballs exist in the machine
- An even number of gumballs do not exist in the machine—i.e. an odd number of gumballs exist
Imagine three people, Bob, Fred, and Jane, some distance away from the machine.
Bob says to Jane, “There are an even number of gumballs in that machine.” Claim (a).
Jane replies, “Why do you say that?”
Bob shrugs and says, “Trust me, there are an even number. You can put money on it.”
Jane is not convinced because Bob offered no good reason why his claim is likely true, and looking at the machine, it is not apparent to her that the gumballs are even. It happens that Jane does not believe Bob.
The question is, does Jane’s disbelief of claim (a)—gumballs are even—mean that she is required to believe claim (b)—gumballs are odd?
Evidently that is not the case.
Imagine Fred says to Jane, “Bob is mistaken. There are, in fact, an odd number of gumballs.” Claim (b). He likewise offers no explanation.
Jane does not believe Fred for the same reason she disbelieves Bob: lack of evidence. She certainly has the option to believe Fred and not Bob, but she is not required to believe him.
Learnings from Gumball Analogy
The analogy shows that to disbelieve one claim of a binary proposition and to believe its opposite claim are not essentially the same. They are fundamentally different.
The Distinction Matters
Consider the old legal axiom:
“Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat—The burden of the proof lies upon him who affirms, not he who denies.”
Bob and Fred are making the claims. If they are determined to convince other people of their beliefs or if their beliefs meaningfully impact people who do not share their beliefs, it falls to them to provide evidence why their claims should be believed. They have a burden of proof.
Jane, however, does not have a burden of proof. Even if she is determined to convince other people not to believe Bob and Fred—imagine the two had started proselytising, trying to convert the arcade—her only responsibility would be to argue that the men have failed to meet their burden of proof and therefore belief is not warranted.
Jane knows that either Bob or Fred must be correct, but she was not given good reasons to show who might be right. As a result, she is not convinced enough to believe either of them.
This demonstrates that to disbelieve both claims of a binary proposition is not some spooky impossibility. It is the default position, in my view, a place where we do not believe something until there is good reason to believe it.
We should aspire to adopt the default position when considering claims—especially affirmations of consequence—lest we believe false and contradictory things.
Gumball to God
We can apply our learnings to the binary proposition of God.
- God exists
- God does not exist
Theists and Positive Atheists
Theists believe claim (a) and positive atheists believe claim (b).
Both groups have a burden of proof if they are determined to convince other people of their beliefs or if their beliefs meaningfully impact people who do not share their beliefs.
Negative atheists do not believe claim (a) and they do not believe claim (b).
They do not have a burden of proof. Even if they are determined to convince other people not to believe theists and positive atheists, their only responsibility would be to argue that theists and positive atheists have failed to meet their burden of proof and therefore belief is not warranted.
Combining Belief and Knowledge
Consider the following broad definitions:
- Gnostic—a person who claims to know
- Agnostic—a person who does not claim to know
If we combine this with our understanding of a theist and an atheist, it can help to better describe a person’s overall position on whether God exists:
- Gnostic Theist—a person who believes and claims to know that God exists
- Gnostic Atheist—a person who believes and claims to know that God does not exist
- Agnostic Theist—a person who believes but does not claim to know that God exists
- Agnostic Atheist
- Agnostic Positive Atheist—a person who believes but does not claim to know that God does not exist
- Agnostic Negative Atheist—a person who does not believe and therefore cannot claim to know that God exists or not
Another way to look at it is that gnostic (a)theists have certainty while agnostic (a)theists do not.
Implicit and Explicit Atheism
As described by George H. Smith, atheism may be divided broadly into two categories[18a]:
- Implicit Atheism—the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it
- Explicit Atheism—the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it
Examples of implicit atheism are people who have no familiarity with the idea of God, such as newborn babies or a person from the Pirahã people.
Smith continues and states:
“The category of implicit atheism also applies to the person who is familiar with theistic beliefs and does not assent to them, but who has not explicitly rejected belief in a god. By refusing to commit himself, this person may be undecided or indifferent, but the fact remains that he does not believe in a god. Therefore, he is also an implicit atheist[18b].”
Explicit atheists include all other atheists, people who have contemplated theistic belief and consciously reject it.
The distinction between implicit and explicit atheism is not as important as negative and positive atheism, but having explored its meaning for the sake of completeness, we have finally concluded my understanding of what atheism is.
Part 2—What Atheism Is Not and Other Musings
What Atheism is Not
Atheism, like theism, is not in itself a worldview or ideology. The label cannot reliably inform you about the beliefs or values of an individual.
Of course, there are atheists who share common worldviews and ideologies. Many adopt secular humanism, lean left politically, and care passionately about social justice and the separation of church and state, which likely explains the prevalence of atheist movements. But it is a mistake to attribute these or any other qualities as a matter of course.
Atheists are diverse, holding not just varying but even irreconcilable beliefs and values. They are regular people, your friends, family, and colleagues, and they are no more joyless and amoral than everyone else.
It is obvious that no one label can fully describe a person. I am an atheist, but the label, despite having an impact on my outlook, describes little about me. Secular humanist, sceptic, and critical thinker, on the other hand, these labels do a better job of revealing who I am and want to be.
And we have to recognise that, when it comes to labels, people have preferences, and that is fine. We might judge someone to be an atheist given the description of their position, but the person might want to identify as an agnostic instead, or a secular humanist, sceptic, freethinker, etc.
I evidently care deeply about the meaning of labels, but descriptions will always trump labels in avoiding miscommunication and misconceptions. I am wary of those who are so dogmatic about labels that they turn a deaf ear to people’s descriptions of what they mean. I have little time for interlocutors who attempt to invalidate a person’s described position by waging definition wars. Neither do I have the inclination to engage with people who hyper-define terms to “win” an argument. To such as these, the endeavour to learn or to educate means little. So, why indulge them?
There is an argument to be made, mostly for political reasons, that disbelievers would do well to unite under a single label—like believers did when they pushed the Christian label to fight Roe vs Wade in the early 1970’s.
I would embrace “atheist” to that end, if required, but “humanist” is my label of preference. Atheism is naturally contrasted against the behemoth that is theism, whereas humanism is more inclusive with a counterpoint that is less clear.
In the UK, the British Humanist Association does good work to protect and promote secular concerns. Many organisations, particularly in the US, that have been successful in defending secular values are openly atheist movements. That is unfortunate for secularists who don’t publicly identify as atheists, but it is what is.
In my experience, it is not unusual to find people who are reluctant to adopt the atheist label (even if that may be what they are). Legitimate reasons for this may include:
- Misunderstanding what atheism is
- Believing that agnosticism is more intellectually honest
- Not wanting to associate with people who are perceived to be know-it-all firebrands. As with any group, there are toxic members who hurt the brand, so to speak
- Fearing what other people might think
- Fearing the cost of being an atheist. There are many places in the world where admission of being an atheist will buy you abuse, and cost you friends and family. People may even lose their freedom or their life
I hope this essay helps to mitigate a few of these reasons.
Part 3—My Specific Position
I am an explicit agnostic positive atheist.
- Minimum Requirement—I lack belief in the existence of God. I.e. I cannot truthfully affirm, “I believe God exists”
- Explicit—I am familiar with the idea of God, I have considered theistic beliefs, and I consciously do not believe it
- Positive—I believe God does not exist. With the caveat that God is defined as “a divine entity that intervenes in the physical universe”
- Agnostic—I do not claim to know that my belief is true. I am convinced, but not certain. Indeed, if my reasons for believing are demonstrated to be unsound, my conviction will falter until I cease to believe, thereby becoming a negative atheist
I am not interested to—and would never—try to convince anyone of my uncertain belief that God does not exist. For this reason, and also because there are no ideologies that depend on God not existing, the pragmatic difference between lacking belief in God’s existence and believing that God does not exist is negligible for me. I.e. I do not think that my behaviour as a positive atheist is different to what it would be if I were a negative atheist.
As such, I generally assume the minimum requirement position when speaking with other people. Theistic belief is likely to be consequential, while atheistic belief is not.
References and Notes
Main article: On Why I Remain an Atheist
- ^ “Belief” essay by Eric Schwitzgebel (Aug 2019), from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved Aug 2022.
“The Analysis of Knowledge”
essay by Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa and Matthias Steup (Nov 2017), from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved Aug 2022.
- ^ Section: “Belief Condition”
- ^ Section: “Knowledge as Justified True Belief”
- ^ Sections: No False Lemmas, Modal Conditions, Doing Without Justification?, Is Knowledge Analyzable?, Epistemic Luck, Methodological Options, Virtue-Theoretic Approaches, Knowledge First, Pragmatic Encroachment, Contextualism
- ^ “Epistemology” article from Britannica. Retrieved Aug 2022.
- ^ “Definitions of Knowledge” article from Wikipedia, “Justified True Belief” section. Retrieved Aug 2022.
- ^ “Overview – The Definition of Knowledge” article from philosophyalevel.com, “Problem: Gettier Cases” section. Retrieved Aug 2022.
- ^ “Attitudes and Beliefs” psychology paper from iresearchnet.com. Retrieved Aug 2022.
- ^ “The Difference Between Atheists and Agnostics” article by Austin Cline from Learn Religions. Retrieved Aug 2022.
- ^ Definition: “Agnosticism” Retrieved Aug 2022.
- ^ Definition: “Atheism” Retrieved Aug 2022.
- ^ For the life of me, I cannot remember where I read this description of atheism.
- ^ “Prove to Me That God Exists: Getting Clear on Atheism, Agnosticism, and a Few Other Matters” article by Paul Copan from Houston Baptist University. Retrieved Aug 2022.
- ^ “What is Atheism?” article from American Atheist. Retrieved Aug 2022.
- ^ “The Presumption of Atheism” essay by Antony Flew (Sep 1972), page 3 of pdf (page 30 of journal). Yes, I know Antony Flew converted to deism before he died. His definitions remain pertinent.
- ^ “Negative and Positive Atheism” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Apr 2022.
- ^ “Guilt, Gumballs and a clarification” video by Matt Dillahunty (Apr 2013), starting at 4m50s.
- ^ “Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat” definition from Legal Dictionary by The Free Dictionary. Retrieved Apr 2022.
- ^ “Burden of proof (philosophy)” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Apr 2022.
- ^ “Atheist vs. Agnostic” article from Religions Wiki. Retrieved Aug 2022.
“Atheism: The Case Against God”
book by George H. Smith (1974).
- ^ Chapter: “The Varieties of Atheism” page 13.
- ^ Chapter: “The Scope of Atheism” page 15.
- ^ “Implicit and Explicit Atheism” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Aug 2022.
- ^ “An Atheist’s Guide to the 2012 Election” video interview with Penn Jillette for Big Think (Nov 2011), starting at 7m18s. Note: I don’t agree with all of Penn’s views. I’m also for individual thinking, but I don’t think that negates movements.
- ^ “Politics and the bugnut Christians” op-ed opinion piece by Penn Jillette for Los Angeles Times (Oct 2011).
- ^ “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” book by Susan Jacoby (Apr 2004).
Very well done, sir! If I may add a bit of a complication to . . . the Gumball Analogy. When the machine was being serviced, the attendant poured new gumballs into the machine from a bag which contained a fractured gumball, such that the gumball total was fractional and therefore neither odd nor even (i.e. between an odd and even number).
So, the situation is not necessarily binary (necessitating that one of the two states, odd or even, must be the case). As this applied to the analogy and “God” we are assuming that each person’s definition of “God” is the same, and we know that not to be true. In the standard Christian definition, we know some of the powers attributed to this god are contradictory, and others superfluous (e.g. omnipresence). Actually omnipresence is both contradictory and superfluous (can’t be both beyond space and time, yet everywhere within space and time) and if omnipotent and omniscience, that god doesn’t have to be anywhere to learn or do anything, but having a cosmic eavesdropper is a wonderful tool for controlling the behaviors of believers (so a priestly invention).
So, the choices are: (a) “God” exists, (b) “God” doesn’t exist, and (c) the “God” is incorrectly described. Which is where we find ourselves in discussions of whether a god does or does not exist.
And, I suggest that we suffer from jumping to the Big Kahuna question. We could approach this question more easily by addressing a less loaded question: do supernatural events or entities exist?
If this question cannot be answered, then the Big Question cannot even be addressed. Or, if it is shown that supernatural events/entities do not exist, then the definition of any god would need to be amended as it would have to qualify as a purely natural entity. And so on. . . .
In any case, well done!
Hi Steve, thanks for your comment and kind words.
All analogies break down, right? I could replace gumballs with coins or pieces of adamantium to protect against breakage. Even then, it remains an analogy vulnerable to modification 😀
I think the complication of option (c) is solved by stating that the definition of God includes any god–incoherent and contradictory or not–that people actually believe exists.
That brings us back to being binary. We can also apply this binary proposition to every single, specific God description ever proposed:
* ‘Well-defined, coherent God X’ exists, ‘Well-defined, coherent God X’ does not exit.
* ‘Incoherent, contradictory God Y’ exists, ‘Incoherent, contradictory God Y’ does not exist.
My essay makes no effort to argue for or against God. I do take your point that there are good arguments against god by looking at incoherency and contradictions. Not to mention the question of whether the supernatural is even possible! These could be posts by themselves as arguments against God.
I appreciate your thoughts. Take care.
Pingback: Reviewing: “Deep Dive into the Meaning of Atheism” » Answers In Reason