An atheist philosopher’s critique of the “lack of belief” definition of atheism

“The Philosopher’s Groan” was a philosophical blog that seems no longer to exist. This is shame, as it had a number of interesting posts.  One in particular stands out to my mind, because it is an atheist philosopher’s trenchant critique of the tendentious “lack of belief” redefinition of atheism.

Although strictly speaking it should make no difference whatever whether a theist or an atheist critiques a given atheistic talking point, in practice it does, since most atheists will simply dismiss criticism made by theists out of hand.

It is therefore very worthwhile for you atheists to hear it from one of your own, that the “lack of belief” redefinition of atheism is severely flawed, tendentious, and at this point in the discussion, simply intellectually dishonest to maintain.

Here, then, is a link to Is a ‘lack of belief’ the best we can do? 

Because I know you’re probably too lazy to click a link just on my say-so, I’ll give you some of the main points:

________________________________________________________________

Is a ‘lack of belief’ the best we can do?

There is a common view – one you yourself may hold – that the only intellectually honest position for an atheist to have is a ‘lack of belief’ in gods. Today I’m going to argue that this definition is confused, and should be retired. It is too broad to be useful, and that we ought to reserve the word ‘atheist’ for active disbelief in the existence of gods.

In recent years, many counter-apologists have come to recognise ‘atheism’ as meaning a ‘lack of belief’ in gods, and that’s it. That is to say, atheism is the end result of rejecting – but not necessarily denying — the positive claims of religion. It’s a non-committal, neutral stance. The reasons usually provided to motivate this definition are some variation on the following:

  1. It is impossible to prove a negative, or to know that something doesn’t exist;
  2. a ‘lack of belief’ isn’t a belief;
  3. that ‘-theism’ (belief) and ‘-gnosticism’ (knowledge) are independent, non-mutually exclusive categories;
  4. the rejection of a claim doesn’t mean accepting the opposite (charge of a false dichotomy); and,
  5. that the etymology of the word ‘atheism’ breaks down to ‘a-‘ meaning ‘without’ and ‘-theos’ meaning ‘gods’, and is thus correct by definition.

I’ll take each of these in turn.

(1) It is possible to prove a negative by demonstrating a logical contradiction: there are no married bachelors, or square circles. Those paired concepts are mutually incompatible, and rule each other out. If the concept of god is incoherent, then the thing it points to can’t exist. And that’s the end of the story.

Furthermore, it’s possible to argue for a negative with an ‘absence of evidence’ argument. If X exists, I should expect to find evidence Z. If evidence Z isn’t found, X is not likely to exist. While not irrefutable, we don’t need it to be to say with a high probability that X doesn’t exist. If you think we do need it to be irrefutable to say X doesn’t exist, then you’re an infallibilist about knowledge, and I’ve already written about why that’s not a desirable position.

[Eve: Cf. my posts You Can’t Prove a Negative and You Can’t Prove a Negative Part 2.]

(2) This seems to be a confusion between the folk concept of ‘belief’, and it’s more precise philosophical definition. The folk concept is something like ‘an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially without proof‘. The philosophical definition is something like ‘a mental state that represents a state of affairs which is accepted as true by the believer‘.

[Eve: A failure to make this distinction leads to such hilarity as William Lane Craig’s humiliation of Lawrence Krauss after Krauss declared in a debate “I have no beliefs!”, to which Dr. Craig humorously responded “Do you really believe that?”]

The philosophical definition means, roughly, a ‘picture’ or a ‘sentence’ in your head that you think is an accurate representation of the world. You look at a wall, you have a belief about that wall. You think about the past, you have a belief about the past. The word just tells me that you think the world is a certain way. It shouldn’t conjure up the spectre of ‘acceptance without evidence’, which is confusing it with ‘faith’.

The only time someone can be said to have a lack of belief regarding a god is before they’ve heard the claim for one. In some minimalist sense this person is an a-theist, but that’s an extremely weak point to hang one’s hat on. After hearing it, they can accept, reject or mull over the claim undecided. But lacking a belief about it is no longer open to them.

When we’re talking about scientific concepts, we make the effort to use appropriate scientific language. We ought to make the same effort to be philosophically precise in matters of philosophy. ‘Atheism’ and ‘belief’ are also technical terms in philosophy. This might rub some anti-philosophical types the wrong way, but like it or not, if you engage in rational argument, you’re doing philosophy. And anything worth doing is worth doing correctly.

(3) This one is often said in conjunction with ‘2’, and is usually accompanied by this graphic:

agnosticatheistgraph

The first thing I can say here is that belief and knowledge are not usually paired this way. As our justification for a belief being true gets stronger, it eventually qualifies as knowledge (because knowledge is at least a ‘justified, true, belief’). So this makes both the gnostic positions rather redundant, as you necessarily have to have a belief if you also have knowledge.

The second thing I can say is that this ‘neat’ partitioning doesn’t capture the degrees of confidence we have in our beliefs and knowledge. I know that the Sun is a star. I also know that evolution has occurred. Do I know these two facts to the same degree of confidence? No. They’re both very high, but not identical — and they’re certainly not 100% certain. This graphic doesn’t capture that nuance, and neither does the distinction it’s attempting to carve out. It’s too simple. Our minds don’t work like this.

(4) While it is true that ‘believing X’ and ‘believing not-X’ aren’t the only options, I disagree that the middling position of ‘not believing X’ is a useful definition of atheism. It’s far too broad to capture just what we might intuitively want to call an atheist (it drifts too far into ‘Area C’). I’ll try to motivate this change of intuition in you.

If a mere ‘lack of belief in god’ is sufficient to be an atheist, then babies are atheists. You might say “yes, they are, or at least were before religion got its mitts on them!” But on this definition chimps are also atheists. As are dolphins, dogs, and doors. They all lack belief in a god.

You might object that the ‘thing’ has to be capable of beliefs at all to prevent the ‘door’ from making this absurd (that’s going to be a problem for anything that is defined in purely negative terms). But suppose I grant that point, even though it seems extremely ad hoc. Are you comfortable calling a dog an atheist? If so, are you just as comfortable calling a goldfish apolitical? Calling the ants in my garden a colony of atheists feels like a misuse of words to me, because this word – defined in this way – picks out any conscious thing on the planet as its referent. That’s a huge net. If we think of atheism as ‘positive disbelief’, that picks out a very small subset of belief-capable humans, and that’s a more desirable outcome.

(5) is an interesting one, as it is a great example of what I call the ‘fetishisation of etymology’. It treats language as if it’s static and eternal, rather than the truly fluid organism it really is. Words change meaning all the time, mostly due to popular usage, but sometimes due to necessity (like the planet example). Thumping the table and shouting “words have meanings!” as I so often see happen, is not an argument.

[Eve: For an excellent case of ‘linguistic fetishization’—although not in this case a fetishization of etymology—see my account of my encounter on Twitter with a linguistic fetishist who maintained that ‘words have only one true meaning, so it is usually the case that the inventors of a word are using it wrongly as soon as they invent it, since its true meaning may not be known for centuries’ at Chaucer, Lit Fish, and Go Fuck Yourself, and Revisiting Whales and Fish One Last Time.]

In the first few centuries CE, the word ‘atheist’ was used by polytheistic pagans to describe Christians, who they were ridiculing for believing in ‘one god for everything’. They taunted them that they should just round it off to an even zero since they were most of the way there already. Before them, it was used by the pagans against the Epicureans (yes, this one, even though this quote is wrongly attributed to him by an early Christian scholar) in Ancient Greece, who believed that the gods did exist and were made of atoms, but were unconcerned with human affairs.

So the word ‘atheist’ has changed several times in history already in response to a conscious or unconscious desire for it to do so. Rather than let the folk concept flitter to and fro, I’d rather intelligently design our language so we can mean what we say, and say what we mean. Like Pluto and the planets, it seems to me that once this folk concept is scrutinised, it comes up short and in need of a rethink.

If you’re still hung up on etymology being king, look up the word ‘nice’ here & here for examples of a word whose meaning has changed dramatically in just 700 years.

[Eve: adding a useful reference on the etymology of atheism.  Not that one should fetishize etymology, but it is worth knowing that the etymology of atheism simply is not a- theism but atheos -ism: See my The Etymology of Atheism.]

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19 comments on “An atheist philosopher’s critique of the “lack of belief” definition of atheism

  1. Lionfish says:

    Eve, I love your work.
    A couple of questions:
    1) Are belief and faiith different concepts?
    2) A christian is saved by faith, not knowledge so a ‘a lack of faith’ certainly a decription of thr the atheist condition.
    Your thoughts?

    Like

    • Eve Keneinan says:

      1. I would say that faith includes belief but goes beyond it as usually understood in English. Faith includes a key component of trust. The most obvious example of this is the fact that the demons believe that Christ is the Son of God, indeed, they know it. But they do not have faith
      2. Yes, “a lack of faith” is a description of the atheist condition. But note again, as with the demons, a lack of faith ≠ a lack of belief. In fact, a lack of faith is compatible not just with belief but with knowledge.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lionfish says:

        Eve – thanks for your reply. I am wondering whether as a philosopher you think that the laws that govern things exist – mathematics, physics, chemistry, body of music, economics, finance etc independently of the material. For example the fact that 2 + 2 = 4 is a reality even though a being may not think of it, agree with it and that the law itself is outside time, space and matter.

        Is this evidence for an immaterial dimension that interplay’s with our reality?

        Like

        • Eve Keneinan says:

          It’s very clear that thought is immaterial, even though it is a part of reality that often intersects with the physical. And once you grant that truth is objective, not a product of the mind, but something the mind grasps, you are forced to admit that there is as THIRD PART of reality, namely, Platonic reality, or immaterial objective being. Really, I think everyone knows this, that reality is in some way tripartite between the physical, the mental, and the Platonic (which is where things like mathematicals, logical entities, e.g. propositions, natural laws, etc. “live”).

          All materialism/physicalism/naturalism eternally breaks on this rock: TRUTH is not physical. To embrace materialism one must deny truth. And if one denies truth, it isn’t even clear what “embracing” a position means.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Lionfish says:

            Hi Eve,

            Many thanks for your response. I had never thought of it as a third ‘ideal’ reality where things like mathematical, logical and natural laws live. That makes sense. Clearly these things are beyond the material reality and exist independently of the human mind.

            I work in IT and we have a term ‘meat-data’ which governs the definitions, scope and rules of the actual data residing within the data warehouse. So I can sort of visualize the concept.

            How would you counter the Atheists objection that thought would be merely processes and impulses of a physical mind and are thus solely part of the material reality?

            Like

      • Lionfish says:

        I am just trying to conceptualize is there evidence for the immaterial.

        Like

  2. Lionfish says:

    Knock, knock! . 🙂

    Like

  3. Brent says:

    Love this. I’ve seen this argument about lack of belief and it just seems like wordplay to. I once said to an atheist that I had “faith” in the human race. He corrected me saying “confidence” was the proper way to state my feelings. I learned quickly that some atheist find the religious so despicable, that they don’t even want to be associated with the oh so common “belief” and “faith” terms of said people. Everyone, to me, has a belief or faith in something or someone. Those terms are not own by the religious. It’s not sacrilegious (sacatheist?) to use them. Or is it? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eve Keneinan says:

      You could have noted that the word “confidence” contains the word “fide”, which is just Latin for “faith.” So the atheist said you shouldn’t say “faith,” you should say “faith-in-Latin.” Very Catholic of him!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Brent says:

    A little embarrassed about some of my grammatical mistakes, in the presence of such a great wordsmith, now that I read my comment again. I am on a phone in my defense.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lionfish says:

    That should be ‘meta-data’ – not ‘meat-data’.

    Like

  6. Nice article.

    5. Actually, what’s really funny is that they don’t even get the etymology correct. They are fetishizing over a complete false narrative. It’s sad when theists don’t know much about the long convoluted histories of their religions, going back thousands of years. It’s kind of outright pathetic when a-theists don’t know anything about the history of a few measly words, that only goes back about 500 years, while arguing so dogmatically about the one true meaning of the word, and as if it has always been that way.

    The original Greek words represented the objective options theos (god, godly) and atheos (no, not, without god, ungodly, godless). Those words didn’t include belief or personhood, both of which come with the suffixes. Someone could believe theos or atheos, someone could be theos or atheos, but nobody was a theos or an atheos.

    Ironically, it was the word “atheist” that was created first. All the religious people had their own religious labels. The word “theist” didn’t exist. There was no word to attach an “a” prefix to. What the Christians did was take the word “atheos”, in full, from ancient Greek, and attached its/ism suffixes to it. Athe(os) + ist = someone who believes “no god” (exists).

    About 100 years later, the same was finally done with the word “theos”. The(os) + ist = someone who believes “god” (exists). But, religious folks still had their religious labels. This wasn’t for them. Along with the Latin form, deux + ist, this word originally described deist types. It was only over the next 100 years, that deists settled on the Latin form of the word for themselves, while “theist” came to be used for all god believers.

    That gets us to the 18th century. Here, you’ll find D’Holbach not having a word to describe those who are undecided, who he doesn’t include as “atheists”. You’ll also find his opponents, representing the Christian common usage majority, clearly indicating that they’re still using the narrow athe(os)-ist definition, from 200 years ago. But, they also lay out their flawed logic. They argue that, if you’re presented with the claim, then not believing it is true equates to believing it is false. So, while they used a narrow definition, they applied it broadly to almost all non-believers.

    Enter Huxley, in the 19th century. Things were still the same. He fully acknowledged that he’d be someone theists would label “atheist”, but argued that he didn’t actually hold the belief attached to the definition, and wasn’t particularly fond of those who did. He thought they distorted what science, his favourite thing, could do and answer. So, he came up with agnost(os) + ic = someone who doesn’t know. And, by that, he did not mean “I don’t know … for certain”, and compatible with beliefs. He meant “I don’t know … period”, no clue, no idea, haven’t the foggiest, and incompatible with beliefs.

    It wasn’t until the later half of the 20th century that the likes of George H Smith (implicit, explicit, weak, and strong, a-theism) and Antony Flew (negative and positive a-theism) promoted the a-theist word reconstruction and redefinition. They special plead a word construction that doesn’t match any other ist/ism words that I know of. I think they all attach the ist/ism last. They’re isms. An amoralist believes in amoralism. An abiogenist believes in abiogenesis. An atonalist believes in and creates atonal music.

    People have similarly done the same with “agnostic”, changing it to a-gnostic, whoever is not a gnostic, making it compatible with beliefs, and promote that together with a-theism.

    3. Those 4 position models are based on a total false dilemma.

    If you don’t care to include the very strong belief, absolute subjective certainty, “gnostic” positions …

    Objectively: P (a god exists) or ~P (no god exists)

    Subjectively:

    Do you believe P?
    Do you believe ~P?

    YN: the(os)-ist
    NN: agnost(os)-ic (weak or negative a-theist)
    NY: athe(os)-ist (strong or positive a-theist)

    If you do care to separate and include those positions (you can just swap out the ist suffix for a gnostic suffix) …

    Do you believe P?
    Do you believe ~P?
    Do you “know” P?
    Do you “know” ~P?

    YNYN: theo(s)-gnostic (gnostic theist)
    YNNN: the(os)-ist (agnostic theist)
    NNNN: agnost(os)-ic (agnostic weak/negative a-theist)
    NYNN: athe(os)-ist (agnostic strong/positive a-theist)
    NYNY: atheo(s)-gnostic (gnostic strong/positive a-theist)

    ^You should get 5 positions, if you include both belief binaries. What 4 positions dishonestly does is ignore beliefs about what the “gnostic atheist” claims to know …

    Do you believe P?
    Do you “know” P?
    Do you “know” ~P?

    YYN: gnostic theist
    YNN: agnostic theist
    NNN: agnostic a-theist)
    NNY: gnostic a-theist)

    NNN is NNNN and NYNN lumped together. Just like a-theist is agnost-ics and athe-ists lumped together. The faulty foundation creates even faultier 4 position garbage, that’s getting shared all over the internet. It’s one thing to outright ignore the “no god” claim. It’s totally another to have a position introduce the “no god” claim, and then blatantly ignore beliefs about that claim, only addressing knowledge for that claim.

    4 & 2. It’s funny to hear so many a-theists say they lack belief due to lack of evidence. As I indicated, Huxley was a scientist, above all else. He saw the scientific method in picking apples at the market. He defined his ism as belief in the scientific method, or the justification process leading to knowledge, and it amounted to a form of demarcation. No objective falsifiable evidence = a subjective unfalsifiable claim. Results: unscientific and inconclusive. No belief as to the truth, or falsehood, of the claim. Making his “I don’t know” incompatible with the(os)-ism, the belief a god exists, and incompatible with athe(os)-ism, the belief no god exists.

    Huxley defined agnosticism perfectly for this kind of person, yet they will fight you, saying agnosticism doesn’t address beliefs, and asserting the lacktheist definition is THE one and only definition, which says nothing about evidence. A rock lacks belief in gods.

    Huxley’s version of agnosticism has a solid foundation in philosophy, as well. Popper, who identified as an agnostic, cemented demarcation into the philosophy of science.

    ‘The great tragedy of science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” ~ Thomas Huxley

    ^That’s the basic argument behind Popper’s example, that “all swans are white” (a beautiful hypothesis) being falsified (slain) by the existence of a single black swan (an ugly fact). Huxley was a stepping stone between Popper and Hume, Huxley’s favourite philosopher. Huxley wrote a book about Hume, retroactively labeling him “Prince of Agnostics”.

    “The whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery. Doubt, uncertainty, suspense of judgment, appear the only result of our most accurate scrutiny concerning this subject.” ~ David Hume

    That suspension of judgement, without objective evidence, philosophy traces back to the oldest school of Greek scepticism, Pyrrhonism.

    “Furthermore, if we go by what the Dogmatists say, even if we form a conception of god it is necessary to suspend judgment concerning whether he exists or does not exist. For it is not pre-evident that god exists.” ~ Sextus Empiricus, The Outlines of Pyrrhonism

    Sextus, as indicated by his name, was also attached to the new school of Empiricism, which flows forward to Hume, Huxley, Popper, and the evolving philosophy of science. But nope, they’d rather just be lacktheists, with not even the most basic philosophy. It’s like a pack of people preferring to call themselves “non-blondes”, rather than brunettes and redheads.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. rom says:

    Nice blog … neither agree nor disagree with your critique.
    So what word would you use to describe a so-called weak, soft, agnostic atheist?
    Personally I would keep “agnostic” for not knowing.
    And thanks for pointing out the fide in confidence 🙂

    Like

  8. Pebble says:

    Not sure your argument holds water. I do not believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy or water memory. So simply inventing a concept is insufficient reason for others to believe in it.
    I accept that beliefs may be justified or not, but the state of belief requires active acceptance of a concept, hence you arguments about animals and babies are irrelevant.

    Like

  9. Danny says:

    Is there any reason to think ‘gods’ are anything but fabrications of the human mind? The concept has been around since ancient times. People were pretty ignorant in those days, unless you want to trot out the concept of the ‘noble savage’. The fact that arguments continue to rage over what ‘atheism’ should denote reflect people’s emotional commitments to social movements and so on, rather than on a reasoned approach, philosophical, etymological or otherwise. That is why this is a dead argument to me.

    Like

    • Eve Keneinan says:

      Is there any reason to think ‘humans’ are anything but fabrications of the human mind? The concept has been around since ancient times. People were pretty ignorant in those days, unless you want to trot out the concept of the ‘noble savage’.

      Seriously, a concept that has been around since far, far into prehistory and which is ineradicable in man is either a legitimate concept, or else you have to confess that human reason is radically untrustworthy, and dispense with essentially all concepts and theories, since reason, the instrument that produced them, is systematically unreliable.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. John Coghlan says:

    I left some fairly simple questions 6 days ago. Rather than acknowledging or addressing the moderators are hiding from addressing them. How frightened are you?

    Like

    • Eve Keneinan says:

      1 No, you didn’t.
      2 You didn’t leave any questions, so no one is hiding anything.
      3 Not frightened in the slightest. Non-existent questions don’t scare me. Even actual questions don’t frighten me, but you’d have to actually ask some.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. John Coghlan says:

    OK, lets try again.

    What am I?

    I think of myself as lacking a belief in god. I choose to use the term atheism to describe this and find that this view is supported by current usage of the term.

    I simply see no convincing evidence supporting the proposition that god exists. I therefore regard the hypothesis god exists unsupported. As I find the hypothesis rather ridiculous, I do not see the need to hold a belief position in respect of the claims made.

    The only argument I see advanced denying that I am an ‘atheist’ is that believers got there first (according to available documented history), so my position must be a belief that the default is wrong. However, since humans form beliefs irrationally, dismissing positions supported only by belief and subsequent rationalisation is simply logical rather than requiring a competing set of beliefs.

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