It’s come to my attention in the last year or so, that many are conflating the classical/philosophical definition of atheism with antitheism (sometimes spelt anti-theism).
Regardless of your preferred use of atheism and atheist, over the centuries and still today atheism is the belief/proposition/claim there are no gods, with the atheist accepting (believing) this is true.
There are other definitions, of course, Flew famously tried changing the definition in 72 to ignore the agnostic label for a “positive atheist” – which maintained the classical definition, one that believes gods do not exist, and a “negative atheist” – one that does not believe in gods, though there was a little more to it than that, which Dave and I cover in this video:
Over time there have been a variety of different definitions of atheism, and there are a number of bad takes around the etymology, but you can see a pretty extensive list in: Etymology vs Use/Definition: Atheism
In the past 15 years or so, the “(disbelief or) lack of belief in God or gods” definition has become popular, with some sites like the American Atheists claiming it is the only definition or folks like Aron Ra claiming all other definitions are wrong. They even go so far as to make claims about historical use which are false. (I respond to one such article here: In response to Ra’s ‘What is Atheism?’)
Perhaps this redefinition, which is perfectly valid, is what has lead to the subsequent redefinition of antitheism. That is to say, the classical definition of atheism, the belief gods do not exist, is now being regarded as antitheism, and antitheism, being against theism, the belief no one should believe in gods, or that religion is harmful and should be expunged, is now some other thing altogether…
In fact, there is further confusion when you engage people on this topic, they say that holding the belief gods do not exist is the same as believing no one should believe in gods and religion is harmful. I think we can agree these are clearly two very different things.
Whilst I believe gods do not exist, and that some religious practices and beliefs are harmful, I can also see the benefits of religion. I don’t care what someone believes, as long as they are not hurting anyone. Most theists do no harm and, in fact, do a lot of good. So clearly me believing gods do not exist does not entail antitheistic beliefs.
Christopher Eric Hitchens was an English-American socio-political critic and public intellectual, who mainly expressed himself as an author, journalist, orator, and columnist. He wrote, co-wrote, edited or co-edited over 30 books, including five of essays on culture, politics, and literature.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Hitchens
Many atheists, especially those that spend a lot of time online, have heard of the late Christopher Hitchens. He had a cutting wit and could slice through many theistic arguments with ease. Whilst I don’t always agree with his methods or things he has said, I can still respect the positive side too.
Hitchens’ Definition of Atheism
I have struggled to find a clear quote of what Hitchens actually defined atheism as. There are more quotes of him saying what atheism is not than what atheism is, but here are a few.
We don’t say on non-truth claims or faith claims that we know when we don’t…..atheists do not say that we know there is no god. We say to the contrary, no argument and no evidence has ever been educed that we consider to be persuasive……The same with the afterlife. Of course, we don’t say that we know there isn’t one. We say that we don’t know anyone who can bring any reason to think that there is.Christopher Hitchens
From this we could infer an active “does not believe” – a considered not believing in theistic claims. Another point to note here is he says atheists do not say we know there is no god. This sort of invalidates that awful agnostic/gnostic atheist quadrant, does it not? Also, if presented with a deity as incoherent as a square circle, why would we not say we know that does not exist?
“Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”― Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
This quote is somewhat confusing, our belief is not a belief. To be charitable, it sounds here like he is saying we believe gods do not exist, but it is not an irrational belief. Although I think he is more saying that we hold a non-belief (which is a 2nd order belief).
Atheism by itself is, of course, not a moral position or a political one of any kind; it simply is the refusal to believe in a supernatural dimension.― Christopher Hitchens
[Said during a debate when his opponent asserted that atheism and belief in evolution lead to Nazism:]
A refusal to believe is closer to an active “does not believe” – a considered not believing in theistic claims.
Summary of Hitchens’ Definition of Atheism
It seems he used an active not believing in theistic claims, rather than the classical definition It is at least a step up from the “atheism is only a lack of belief” which often entails quotes like “atheism is the default position” and “babies are atheists” and even “rocks are atheist“.
So, if we accept for now that, for Hitchen’s at least, the definition atheism he used was a considered response to theistic claims that he rejected based on considering the evidence and arguments so, therefore, was an active response of “I don’t believe you” but also thought that one wouldn’t claim “I know God does not exist”, he would probably still regarded those that “believe gods do not exist” as atheists because the “I don’t believe God exists” is entailed in that statement, although it would be odd to exclude one with knowledge gods do not exist as well, as the belief is entailed by the knowledge, as knowledge is a subset of belief.
In Short, Hitchens’ defined atheism as one that has considered theism and does not believe it to be true.
So what about antitheism?
Hitchens’ Definition of Antitheism
Hitchens was a self proclaimed antitheist, but from the work he was doing it was clear he acted as such too.
The statement above includes references to both atheism and antitheism. I think some might be unclear about which statement relates to what so I have created an easier version for us to analise.
Hitchens: Atheist & Antitheist
Below is the same image, with green highlights for atheist, and red highlights for antitheist.
You can see he is speaking in a sort of A/B method throughout.
So next, we need to examine what this all means. Let’s start with the atheist sentiments and then examine the antitheists ones.
I am not even an atheist
This is more saying “I am not only an atheist”.
I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth
The key word in this sentence is UNTRUTH. But what is an untruth?
If it a lie or false statement, he not only “doesn’t believe” the religious claims, he actively thinks (or believes) them false. So whilst he might have held that all you need to qualify you as an atheist is (actively) not believing theistic claims, he himself went a step further and believed them false.
Reviewing the false claims of religion
Again, he isn’t suspending judgement on the claims of religion, he is asserting they are false.
I am relieved to think that the whole story is a sinister fairy tale
Do we think fairy tales are real? By definition a fairy tale is:
What is something imaginary? Something existing ONLY in the imagination. Therefore it has no objective reality. It is not real. It does not exist.
Summary of Atheist Sentiments
Whilst Hitch may have been under the impression that all an atheist needed was to actively not believe theistic claims, his words describe more of the “belief Gods do not exist” kind, known as a “hard/strong atheist” in some circles, or just the classical definition of atheism.
He was an intelligent guy, so I doubt he was mincing his words and describing something else.
so much as an antitheist
The way he wrote the sentence seemed like he was saying that an antitheist was almost a subcategory of atheist, much in the way you can say that knowledge is a subset of belief. I do think it would be odd for anyone that is not an atheist to be an antitheist in the regard spoken above, though there are some theists that believe in the separation of church and state, and they could be considered antitheist in that regard. Though I feel this is a stretch to the definition. It doesn’t quite sit right with how the word is composed or usually defined.
I hold that the influence of churches and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful
This is clear as day, he believes the influence of church and religion is harmful. This is what antitheists tend to believe and why they are against religion.
I do not wish…that they were true
Not only does he think they are false, but he is glad they are false. He does not want any religious claim to be true.
life would be miserable if what the faithful affirmed was actually true
He views a theistic/religious life as one that would be absolutely miserable. It seems he doesn’t even allow for the positives that religion can bring to some.
I cannot imagine anything more horrible or grotesque
This is quite a negative sentiment in regards to theism.
Summary of Antitheist Sentiments
As you can see, the tone is completely different. The antitheist statements speak about the negatives he sees from theism/religion. He doesn’t acknowledge there is any positive to religion at all and in fact speaks quite negatively about it. He clearly sees Antitheism as being against theism.
Atheist vs Antitheist
Antitheism is an opposition to theism. It contains the belief that religion/theism are harmful and you do not want people to hold said belief(s). It is a belief about religion/theism rather than one about deities existing.
Theism and Atheism are usually seen as ontological positions. That is to say, they speak of the nature of God’s being or existence. Theism is the proposition (or propositional content of the belief) God exists, and Atheism is the negation of this, namely the proposition (or propositional content of the belief) God does not exist. The theist accepts the proposition of theism and rejects the proposition of atheism. The atheist accepts the proposition of atheism and rejects the proposition of theism. In neither case is this a claim of knowledge or absolute certainty, that is a more individual state.
“I don’t believe God exists” without also holding the belief “I believe God does not exist” means you also “don’t believe God does not exist”. Whilst this makes part of your ontology it does not speak to the ontology of God and is, therefore, an epistemic position. This is known as suspending judgement. In philosophy, this is usually regarded as being Agnostic. There are other ways agnostic is used, for more info check out What is Agnosticism? How does it relate to knowledge and beliefs?
Whilst the Hitchens’ quotes I found seemed to indicate an active “does not believe” in theistic claims, the way he presented himself in the quote we analysed seemed to indicate he held to the classical definition of atheism.
I think this might be part of the confusion some people have with his statement, rather than reading it into the A/B format as above, they assumed the entire statement is about antitheism.
The Anti- Prefix
The Anti- Prefix usually means opposed to; against. It can, in some circumstances mean opposite. I think the opposite use actually comes down to 2 factors.
- In science, the Anti-Particle is the opposite particle.
- Words like Anti-Clockwise mean the hands are going against the clockwise motion; however, this also happens to be the opposite, therefore folks assume anti = opposite.
With how language works, the way it is used becomes valid use so we have to accept that anti- can sometimes be used to mean opposite.
That said, if you look for various dictionary definitions of Antitheism, you do not find the “opposite of theism” you find the “opposed to theism” or “against theism”, sometimes a more elaborate definition.
Definitions of Antitheism
Antitheism, sometimes spelled anti-theism, is the opposition to theism.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines antitheist as “One opposed to belief in the existence of a god”. The earliest citation given for this meaning dates from 1833. Antitheism has been adopted as a label by those who regard theism as dangerous, destructive, or encouraging of harmful behaviour.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antitheism
I will simplify things by defining ‘anti-theism’ as referencing a movement opposed to the rational and ethical problems with religion.Robert Johnson
Summary of Antitheism Definitions
It is quite clear all of these uses are being opposed to theism. This includes being opposed to the belief in a deity.
Being opposed to people believing in deities is not the same as believing deities do not exist.