Atheism: A Lack of Belief in God?

Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, has an excellent argument against the redefinition of atheism from “belief that God does not exist” to “lack of belief in the existence of God”—a rather shabby linguistic trick perpetrated primarily by philosopher Antony Flew in the 1970s, which really caught on because it allows the atheist to assume an unwarranted rhetorical advantage in argument.  It’s a kind of special pleading and shifting the burden of proof.

Here’s what the Maverick Philosopher has to say:

AtheismNonsense, say I.

Note first that atheism cannot be identified with the lack of theistic belief, i.e., the mere absence of the belief that God or a god exists, for that would imply that cabbages and tire irons are atheists. Note second that it won’t do to say that atheism is the lack of theistic belief in persons, for there are persons incapable of forming beliefs. Charitably interpreted, then, the idea must be that atheism is the lack of theistic belief in persons capable of forming and maintaining beliefs.

But this cannot be right either, and for a very simple reason. Atheism is something people discuss, debate, argue for, argue against, draw conclusions from, believe, disbelieve, entertain, and so on. Atheism, in other words, is a PROPOSITION: it is something that can be either true or false, that can be the object of such propositional attitudes as belief and disbelief, that can stand in such logical relations to other propositions as entailment, consistency, and inconsistency. But one cannot discuss, debate, argue for, . . . believe, etc. a lack of something. Atheism redefined as the lack of theistic belief is a PROPERTY of certain persons. Now a proposition is not a property. Atheism is a proposition and for this reason cannot be redefined as a property.

Someone who understands this might nevertheless maintain that ‘negative atheism’ is a proposition, namely, the proposition that there are people capable of forming and maintaining beliefs who simply lack the belief that God exists. Admittedly, one could use ‘atheism’ as the label for the proposition that there are such people. But then atheism so defined would be trivially true. After all, no one denies that there are people capable of beliefs who lack the belief that God exists. Furthermore, if ‘atheism’ is so defined, then theism would be the view that there are persons capable of belief who have the belief that God exists. But then theism, too, would be trivially true. And if both are true, then they cannot be logical contradictories of each other as they must be if the terms are to mean anything useful.

Now what is the point of the terminological mischief perpetrated by these ‘negative atheists’? It is terminological mischief because we have just seen it ruin two perfectly good words, ‘atheism’ and ‘theism.’ If atheism and theism are worth discussing, then atheism is the view that no gods exist and theism is the view that one or more gods exist.

The point of the cyberpunk definition is to avoid being pinned down, to avoid being committed to a positive thesis. But of course the claim that there is no God is a positive claim about Reality, namely, the claim that Reality is godless. And so our cyberpunk commits himself nolens volens.

Let’s go through this point by point:

Point 1: “Atheism is a lack of belief in God” cannot be correct, because this would make all inanimate objects atheists, which is absurd:


Point 2: “Atheism is a lack of belief in God by persons” cannot be correct, because then would we have to count persons incapable of forming beliefs as atheists, e.g. those in comas or persistent vegetative states:


A typical atheist

If this were correct, my friend Chris Lansdown would be right in his sardonic remark that the surest way to “persuade” someone of atheism would be beat them in the head with a tire iron until they were incapable of having a belief in God.  This is also absurd.


Persuading someone to become an atheist

Point 3: “Atheism is a lack of belief in God by those person capable of forming and maintaining beliefs.”  This also can’t be correct, because atheism is a PROPOSITIONAL POSITION (as are all other -isms).  It is something that one can do things with that can only be done with propositions: discuss it, debate it, deny it, argue about it, conceptually analyze it, etc. It also has the unique propositional property of being either true or false. A mere factual property or state of lacking a belief is neither true nor false. It is simply a fact that such-and-such person has such-and-such property: Person A factually lacks a belief in God. Person B factually has a belief in God. Neither of these states of affairs logically entails anything. One might redefine theism as “The factual possession of a belief in God by persons capable of forming and maintaining beliefs.”  If this is what “theism” means, then the argument for theism is trivially true: “Person B factually possesses a belief in God; therefore, theism exists.”  It is utterly uninteresting to discuss whether some people lack a belief in God and others possess one.  Both are obviously, trivially true.  The proposed redefinition of atheism amounts to the assertion “there are atheists.”

Point 4: The point of the redefinition of atheism is to secure an unwarranted rhetorical advantage.  The atheist redefines his position as a nonposition in order to escape responsibility for rationally defending his position, while at the same time insisting that the theist has the very responsibly of rationally defending his position from which the atheist exempts himself—this is why this redefinition is an exercise is Special Pleading:


Frankly, it’s simply intellectually dishonest, and there are atheists who do not engage in this sort of thing.  All too many, however, do, and they should be mercilessly called on this dishonesty whenever they engage in it.

I suppose I can understand the allure of defining your position in such a way as to render it unassailable, but remember that such “victories” are hollow, since they are not actually won in the realm of reason and truth, but only of words. Rhetorical victories are only that. They have no bearing on truth. If you care about truth, you should disdain merely rhetorical victories. If you do not care about truth, then I have no interest in talking to you.

As David Bentley Hart writes,

A straw man can be a very convenient property, after all. I can see why a plenteously contented, drowsily complacent, temperamentally incurious atheist might find it comforting— even a little luxurious— to imagine that belief in God is no more than belief in some magical invisible friend who lives beyond the clouds, or in some ghostly cosmic mechanic invoked to explain gaps in current scientific knowledge. But I also like to think that the truly reflective atheist would prefer not to win all his or her rhetorical victories against childish caricatures. I suppose the success of the books of the “new atheists”— which are nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men— might go some way toward proving the opposite. Certainly, none of them is an impressive or cogent treatise, and I doubt posterity will be particularly kind to any of them once the initial convulsions of celebrity have subsided. But they have definitely sold well. I doubt that one should make much of that, though. The new atheists’ texts are manifestoes, buoyantly coarse and intentionally simplistic, meant to fortify true unbelievers in their unbelief; their appeal is broad but certainly not deep; they are supposed to induce a mood, not encourage deep reflection; and at the end of the day they are probably only a passing fad in trade publishing, directed at a new niche market. It is hardly surprising, moreover, that the new atheist vogue should have arisen chiefly in English-speaking countries, where philosophical subtlety is not a virtue very assiduously cultivated in schools or universities. The movement’s only real interest is that it is symptomatic of a larger cultural forgetfulness on the part of believers and unbelievers alike. I may occasionally mention the new atheist books below, as providing examples of the sort of confusions that I want to get past, but I do not think they warrant more attention than that.

Hart, David Bentley. The Experience of God (pp. 5-6). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Point 5: As we’ve seen, the appropriate response to “I lack a belief in God” is “I have one.” Both, as mere assertions of states of affairs are no more than that: statements that certain persons have certain factual properties. However, one can still force the atheist who insists that atheism is a lack of belief in God to answer the question whether his lack of belief is an irrational, willful lack of belief.  After all, he could be saying “I do not believe in God because I have a blind faith that there is no evidence supporting the existence of God, and no sound argument for the existence of God. I maintain this belief by irrationally, willfully dismissing any proffered evidence as nonevidence and declaring any argument unsound a priori.” Obviously, such a willful maintenance of a lack of belief in God would be utterly irrational. The “lack of belief” atheist therefore has a choice:

  1. He can agree that his lack of belief in God is an irrational act of blind faith, or
  2. He can assert that his lack of belief in God is a rationally warranted position.

If he choses option 1, there is nothing more to be said. He admits his lack of belief is simply irrational, an accomplishment of blind faith, and there is no point in discussion.

But if he choses option 2, then he is committing himself to a propositional position, namely, that belief in God is unwarranted, and that the rational position with respect to belief in God is to suspend judgment, that is, to deliberately lack a belief, because it is rational to do so.  But if he does this, he has undermined his own evasion, because he has now admitted that atheism is indeed a propositional position, rather than merely a factual property of some persons.

The atheist must now show that theism is not rationally warranted, that the theist is making some sort of epistemic error in believing in God; merely announcing the fact that he, personally, is unpersuaded amounts to nothing, since as we saw, this could be the result of an irrational refusal to be persuaded; personal incredulity proves nothing, after all. Instead, the atheist must argue that his rejection of belief is rationally warranted; he is thus epistemically in the same boat as the theist.  The atheist’s attempted evasion of responsibility for argument fails, if he claims his atheism is rationally warranted. If he refuses to claim his atheism is rationally warranted, then his atheism may be rationally dismissed as irrational.

What he cannot do is have it both ways, insisting that his position is both (1) a rationally warranted position, and (2) a nonposition for which he need supply no rational warrant.

Point 6: Finally, even if one wishes to engage in the dishonest special pleading involved in redefining atheism as “lack of belief in God” (even though, as we have seen, the evasion fails on anything but the most superficial rhetorical level), the evasion fails in a deeper way as well, as I demonstrate here in Atheism Cannot Evade the Existence Question (following Alvin Plantinga).  Please go read that for a discussion of why the evidentialist position in atheism fails.

TL;DR: If God exists, then the evidentialist objection to the existence of God, that there is insufficient evidence to rationally warrant belief in God, is almost certainly false.  Only on the condition that God does not exist, does the evidentialist objection have any significant rational weight. Thus, the evidentialist objection is either toothless, if God does exist, or question begging, if God does not, since all its force is dependent on the nonexistence of God. Thus, after stating the evidentialist objection, the atheist must then make the case that the objection has significant rational weight, and to do this, it is necessary that he show that God certainly or probably does not exist. So the evidentialist atheist needs to make a positive case for nonexistence of God anyhow. Unless and until he does so, his evidentialist objection will have weight only for atheists, but not for theists, or other nonatheists.



9 comments on “Atheism: A Lack of Belief in God?

  1. I still think it a very fair question if a man says that the default is that there is no God to ask if he has any evidence his words are worth reading or if I’m supposed to take it on faith that they are. 🙂


  2. The argument here is saturated with an ad hominem circumstantial. Default values are hardly unique to the topic of religious discussion, and the continual assertion that we atheists only resort to them as a trick substitutes a narrative about our motives for key elements of the argument at hand.


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      The argument is a practical argument. It is about whether we should or should not do something, namely, redefine a word, or change the usage of an established word, or accept this redefinition/change. As a practical argument, it will necessarily appeal to human goods and human interests. This is not an ad hominem. If someone wants to do something that everyone must accept, then they must make a case that it is good to do, or is in everyone’s or most people’s interests.

      A discussion of the interests of the parties proposing the action is not an ad hominem. An ad hominem occurs when an appeal to the characteristics of person is made which is irrelevant to his argument. If a man makes an argument, for example, that pedophilia should be decriminalized and destigmatized in society, it is not irrational to take into account that he is a pedophile, and thus has a strong vested interest in his own proposed change, which does not indeed refute his argument, but does subject it to higher level of scrutiny. He may claim he is making a perfectly neutral argument for what is best for society, but the fact that what he claims is good for everyone is very very good for him in particular is reason to view his argument with some suspicion.

      So the fact the main consequence of redefining the words “atheist” and “atheism” is to give atheists an unfair advantage in debate, coupled with the fact there seems to be no common good involved, and indeed as Vallicella points out, a common bad, namely, the ruin of perfectly good, useful established words is reason to think that the main motive for making this change is to accommodate the self-interest of atheists who desire to have a cheap and unearned rhetorical advantage in debates. In other words, the argument has the form “You should do this, because it will advantage me, and disadvantage you.” And this is an argument rational persons should reject.


  3. […] so would be atheists. (This doesn’t mean the Flewian definition isn’t a stupid one: see here and […]


  4. […] Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, has criticized the tendentious redefinition of atheism as “lack of belief in the existence of God.” […]


  5. Given persistent atheist insistence that atheism is merely a lack of belief in God, I think we need a new word, a neologism that flips the script: If you’re not an Atheist, then clearly, you’re a NonAtheist. And as it turns out, NonAtheists are the majority, overwhelmingly.

    Since in many jobs you are forbidden from wearing religious symbols, and in many countries this is also true, and it’s increasingly dangerous to be a member of certain specific religions on our nation’s campuses, I believe a symbol to help NonAtheists of all types–Hindus, theist Buddhists, nonreligious who believe in things beyond the laws of physics, AA members who think God’s not just their imagination, philosophical theists, agnostics who lean toward God, Jews, Zoroastrians, whoever you are–if you’re Not An Atheist, why not be NonAtheist?

    We need people to help make memes and maybe a log o or two. 🙂


  6. De Ha says:

    See, this is why Christians have a reputation for being closed-minded idiots:

    You can’t tell people how they think. I know how I think, you don’t, therefore if you tell me how I think you are instantly wrong. If you continue to argue with me about how I think after I correct you, you are a fucking idiot.

    The most frustrating theists to argue with are the ones who you just can’t get one single thing through their thick skulls.

    You also apear to be suffering from Neuance Blindness: a mental disease that causes someone to deny the existance of anything but extremes. “You’re either with us or against us” “if you’re not a communist you’re a Trotski faschist” “oh you think the new Ghostbusters movie looks like shit? Sexist!” In your case, you think the only 2 numbers on the Dawkin’s scale are 1 and 7 even though he himself put himself at 6.9.

    Also, has it occured to you that maybe, if we have nuance (I.e. God PROBABLY doesn’t exist: a position that’s neither atheist nor agnostic but closest to atheist and is in fact de facto atheist) and you don’t understand nuance, maybe that means we’re open-minded and you’re not?

    Personally, I’m all over the upper half of the Dawkin’s scale depending on which God you’re talking about: Jehovah 7 Allah 6.5 thor Zeus etc 6 deist God 5 God-like aliens 4.


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