Since the word came into being, an atheist has meant a person who denies the existence of God. In 1973, philosopher Antony Flew—one of the 20th century’s greatest proponents of atheism, who also later embraced theism as a result of finally reading Aristotle—hit upon the rhetorically brilliant but intellectually dishonest tactic of redefining atheism not as the denial of the existence of God but as the mere lack of belief in the existence of God. See HERE and HERE for more information.
He did this for two reasons: first, it immediately vastly swelled the number of “atheists” in the world—suddenly, overnight, all the agnostics became atheists, much to their surprise (“agnostic” having been a term coined by Thomas H. Huxley as explicitly distinct from “atheist”); and second, this redefinition of atheism allowed Flew to argue that the burden of proof in any debate about the existence of God lies solely on the theist. In other words, in any debate, the atheist has no burden of proof whatever—or so Flew contended.
In philosophical circles, Flew’s trick did not go uncontested, although it also found its admirers, secularism being quite popular among professional philosophers (as with all academics) through most of the 20th century (happily, this trend seems to be reversing in philosophy, which is a sign it will also in other disciplines; philosophy often serves as an excellent trend indicator of the academy).
I really can’t explain why this redefinition is a terrible and dishonest idea better than Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher does HERE. Please go read it. It’s short and to the point. I’ll wait.
Okay, so you’re back. Be honest, how many of your really went and read it? If you didn’t want to take the trouble, I’ll summarize the Maverick Philosopher’s argument:
- If “atheism” is only “lack of belief in God” then nearly everything, including inanimate things will by atheists. For example, bricks:But this seems like a very stupid way to define an “atheist,” since it makes one indistinguishable from an inanimate object.
- If, more charitably, we define “an atheist” as “a person who lacks a belief in God,” this still won’t do, since there are persons—infants, the comatose, the brain damaged—who lack such a belief because they are incapable of informing one. As my friend Chris Lansdown has observed, it is curious that people identify with an intellectual position that one can acquire via Alzheimer’s disease or severe physical brain damage. If you hit someone in the head with a lead pipe enough, they will become an atheist, on Flew’s definition.
- The Maverick Philosopher continues by pointing out that atheism is a proposition: it is something debated, discussed, entertained, pondered, thought about, argued for, argued against, has conclusions and entailments, is subject to belief or disbelief, has logical relations to other propositions, etc. None of this could be the case for a mere lack of something.
- If atheism were really defined as a factual lack of belief, it would merely describe a psychological property of a person. It would literally mean nothing, other than an expression of a person’s personal incredulity over a proposition. Since propositions are not properties, atheism cannot be a property. Conversely, if Flew’s trick is applied to theism, it would mean the psychological fact of someone’s possessing a belief in God. So if the atheist says “Atheism is just a lack of belief in God (as a psychological property)”, he cannot demand, contrary to his intention in making this move, that the burden of proof falls on the theist. For all the theist need do is reply “Theism is just the possession of a belief in God (as a psychological property)” and no proof needs to be given that I psychologically possess a given belief.
- But if the atheist demands that theism be treated as a proposition rather than a property, then he ipso facto gives the reason that atheism also be treated as propositional position and not a mere psychological property.
But what, you are asking, does this have to do with absurdism and nihilism? I promised you absurdity and nihilation! Okay, okay.
Let me define my terms:
I define absurdism as the rejection of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. It is the position that, ultimately, there are things that simply exist or happen FOR NO REASON. (Not, mind you, that we do not know the reason they exist or happen, but that they literally exist or happen FOR NO REASON.)
I define nihilism in an ethical sense, in accordance with Ivan Karamazov’s maxim “If there is no God, everything is permissible.” Nihilism is the position that there is nothing which is morally absolute which could serve as an ethical standard of good and evil.
The atheist says that he lacks a belief in God. He really means that he does not accept the truth of proposition “There is a God.”
What if an atheist says “I accept the Principle of Sufficient Reason”? In that case, he is accepting that there is an ultimate ground of intelligibility and reason for everything that happens or exists. But such a ground would be God. Therefore, an atheist cannot accept that there is an ultimate ground of reason and intelligibility without eo ipso becoming a theist (there is no need for him to believe in a personal God of the sort Christianity teaches yet—but he would have committed himself to a belief in the Absolute).
What if an atheist says “I accept there is an absolute standard of goodness”? In that case, he is accepting Plato’s Idea of The Good, and this, once again, would just BE GOD, albeit again, not yet the personal God of Christianity.
Since an atheist cannot accept either an absolute ground of reason and intelligibility nor an absolute ground and standard of goodness without eo ipso becoming a theist, necessarily every atheist is both an absurdist and a nihilist.
And even if the atheist continues the dishonest dodge of saying he merely lacks a belief in God, he has to say for the reasons above that he also lacks a belief in the intelligibility of the universe and lacks a belief in all truly transcendent good and evil. Saying “I lack a belief in X” is equivalent to saying “I do not accept that X is true.” So the atheist does not (and cannot) accept as true the Principle of Sufficient Reason or the Idea of the Good.
And with this, the atheist has destroyed the possibility of both of truth and theoretical philosophy, including science, since he does not accept it as true that the cosmos is intelligible, and practical philosophy, ethics, since he does not accept as true the existence of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, virtue and vice.
And necessarily, one who rejects both theoretical and practical philosophy rejects reason, except in its capacity a mere calculative instrument in the service of irrational will.
And necessarily, when one categorically rejects reason except as an instrument, one is left with only the sheer self-assertiveness of the will as the irrational master of the merely instrumental reason.
And of course, the absolute triumph of the will is over reality is simply the combination of absurdism and nihilism. At best, it is Nietzscheanism; at worst, Nazism.
And of course, this prideful assertion of my will in opposition to God’s will is the oldest sin of all, the truly original sin.