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:


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.]


4 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?


    • 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.


      • 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?


      • Lionfish says:

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


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