Reblog: William Lane Craig on the Definition of Atheism

Here is an exchange between a querent and Christian philosopher William Lane Craig about the definition of atheism.  Original found here.  Of special interest is Antony Flew’s admission that he is using the word “atheism” is a highly idiosyncratic manner.  Flew’s usage has become more widespread, but it is still decidedly a minority usage, although some dictionaries have begun to include it. Here is the exchange:

Definition of atheism


In my discussions with atheists, they are using the term that they “lack belief in God”. They claim that this is different from not believing in God or from saying that God does not exist. I’m not sure how to respond to this. It seems to me that its a silly word-play and is logically the same as saying that you do not believe in God.
What would be a good response to this?
Thank you for your time,

[Dr. Craig:]


Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God. Compare my saying , “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.” If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars. There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).” Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.

But where your atheist friends err is in claiming that atheism involves only not believing that there is a God rather than believing that there is no God.

There’s a history behind this. Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist. Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists.

So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken. For the assertion that “There is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “There is a God.” Therefore, the former assertion requires justification just as the latter does. It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence. He confesses that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or whether there is no God.

But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.” So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists). As Antony Flew confesses,

the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way. Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist. (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford: Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew)

Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view. It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all. On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists! In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.

One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.

So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position? Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists. If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view. But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof. So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions. They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.

This is disingenuous and still leaves us asking, “So is there a God or not?”

by William Lane Craig

[Emphasis is Eve’s]

14 comments on “Reblog: William Lane Craig on the Definition of Atheism

  1. This is a very enlightening post.

    Nevertheless, no matter how atheism is defined, it is still a failure of reason.


    • David K says:

      I have a friend, I have known her for about 20 years. She was born into an atheist family, in fact, going back generations, the family has always been atheist. How is this a failure of reason?

      Liked by 1 person

      • David,

        Logically, your comment is what is called non-sequitur.

        That is, it does not follow.

        Whether atheism is a failure of reason or not has absolutely nothing to do with your friends or whether they were born atheist or whether their family ancestry is atheist or Catholic or Protestant or Hindu.

        That is because reason is a systematic way of thought.

        Consequently, the number of atheists in the family going back however many generations, is irrelevant.

        What is relevant is the nature of atheism.

        Reason is based on understanding the nature of a thing.

        To be an atheist, one must believe that everything just happened all by itself.

        Thus, atheism is the belief in something obviously ridiculous, because nothing happens all by itself.

        That is why atheism is a failure of reason.

        Atheism, by it’s very nature, is a failure of reason because to be an atheist one must believe in something that is obviously ridiculous.


    • David K says:

      Ah, since you did not define what a failure of reason is, I thought you made that reference to William Craig Lane’s definition of atheism.

      Unfortunately, you’re follow up isn’t much better. Stating all atheists believe the universe came from nothing is simply not true. First, an atheist does not necessarily have a view on how the earth came to be and It is an argument that is made time and time again in an effort to discredit atheism.
      If an atheist has a view on how the earth came to be, they may side with the Big Bang because obviously a god creating the universe would not be something they would view as credible but they also know that the Big Bang is just a theory, realistically, no one knows how the universe came to be.

      The atheist likely shares a similar sentiment as yours: “because to be a theist one must believe in something that is obviously ridiculous.”. Like the atheist, you will never get anywhere arguing something that you simply cannot prove.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David,

        Our thoughts have implications.

        Learning how to reason enables us to navigate to and through the implications of what we think in order to find out the truth of them.

        If you are an atheist, it follows that you either believe that everything happened all by itself, or that you are like a dog or cat or new born babe and unable to conceptualize God.

        Either way, atheism is a failure of reason.

        And you are just playing word games to get you atheism to work out for you.

        Liked by 1 person

      • David K says:

        Sounds to me like you are playing word games yourself, you are coming up with your own definitions of atheism and what an atheist believes.

        Since you love word games 🙂 What’s the difference between “Big Bang” and “Creation”. The Big Bang is a scientific theory, Creation is a “Myth” but both try to explain to it’s followers how the earth came to be. Was anyone there to see it? Is there proof of this happening? No, just belief.

        Either way, If you think an atheist view is “Something came from nothing”, The atheist may look at you claiming God created it as “oh, so your saying, something came from nothing”.

        Thanks to science and technology, we can now witness the “birth” of a planet through a telescope.

        “And you are just playing word games to get you atheism to work out for you.”

        Think about it. no matter if it is logic or reason, it is always like a word game making your argument fit your worldview.


      • David,

        The definitions I use come from atheists.

        And my language is very simple and clear.

        There’s nothing up my sleeve and my fingers never leave my hand.


        No tricks or word games.


      • David,

        My comments concern science and reasoning not myth.

        The existence of God is proven by science and is consistent with reason.

        That isn’t my opinion.

        It’s the foundation of Western Civilization going back to the ancient Greeks.


      • David K says:

        Science has not proven a god and it’s not pertinent to this discussion. Everything you have said is definitely your opinion and apparently what you believe. I see that you could not defend your claim on your blog so I’m not going to debate you here.

        Similarly, I’m not sure what you are referring to when you state “It’s the foundation of Western Civilization going back to the ancient Greeks.” What is “It’s”? Religion?

        I came here to discuss the definition of Atheism, what are you doing here?

        Eve, thanks for your time and discussion.


  2. David K says:

    I find it amusing that people are trying to define/redefine atheism. Several years ago, someone found out I was atheist and tried to argue that I had a belief in god but it fell terribly on it’s face.

    Atheist is from the Ancient Greek word, atheos. It was used as a derogatory term to describe those without a belief in god, or used against those who didn’t have a belief in their god(s).

    What difference does it really make if it is someone who might be from a civilization devoid of god, a baby with no knowledge or someone who just rejects their teachings?

    Well, I know the answer to that. Because one wants to argue their logical argument that they believe the atheists position is not logical, or they believe it is a failure to reason (as we see above), that technically they have a “belief” as I mentioned above. At the end of the day, these people are… atheos “without god”.


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      The difference it makes is between “atheism” as position that one holds, and a mere state of being.

      One cannot argue for or against atheism as a state of being or a mere property.

      Some people lack a belief in God. Some people have one.

      Neither of those merely factual properties of persons have any bearing on whether God exists, which is, of course, the real question.

      The fact that bricks, baboons, and babies all lack a belief in God is uninteresting, since none of them lack a belief in God on the basis of reasoning. They lack such a belief simply because they are incapable of having one.

      It simply confuses the issue when you use the same term for “those incapable of having a belief” and “those who have come to a reasoned position vis a vis a belief.”

      Imagine you saw a headline that said: THE POPE HAS BECOME AN ATHEIST!

      Wouldn’t you feel misled if you learned the Pope had had a stroke and is in a coma with no brain functioning (and thus, presumably, currently lacks a belief in God—assuming that the brain dead do not have beliefs)?


      • David K says:

        Yes and some people argue rocks are atheist, public schools are atheism schools, so I agree, it is “uninteresting”, so I defined atheism as defined by Ancient Greeks.

        If the Pope had a belief in God, my definition would not change if he had a stroke, it would be assumed he still had a belief. But that begs the question, did the stroke cause him to reconsider his belief in god? and he may have no way of telling us!


        • gyges00 says:

          Hi David K,

          But then, a reply such as yours winds up merely ignoring the issue at hand that (presumably) most in the theism-atheism debate care most about–namely, what the world is like, and, more specifically, whether there is such person as God. On the definition of atheism as lack of being in a certain psychological state, namely, belief, atheism becomes no more than a self-report–a bit of psychological autobiography, which, while perhaps interesting in certain contexts, doesn’t have to do with the issue at hand, any more than does a report of being thirsty or wishing one were in Des Moines. If I’m asking, “Does God exist?” and my sparring partner replies, “Lo! I have no such belief!” he has offered me no reason either to think He does or does not exist. David Lewis once said, “I cannot refute a stare.” A corollary here might be, “I cannot refute a self-report.”


          • David K says:

            “Some people lack a belief in God. Some people have one.
            Neither of those merely factual properties of persons have any bearing on whether God exists, which is, of course, the real question.”

            Gyges00, I am quoting Eve above. I don’t disagree with what she wrote so I probably didn’t comment on it last year. or maybe my focus was on the definition of “atheist”…. But to your point, certainly, just having an opinion does not prove the existence or non-existence of a god. The same goes for the theist, just because they believe in one, does not prove existence.


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