Introduction

When it comes to asking questions about atheism, there are many malformed questions that the theist may put forward.  Anyone who has been an atheist and active on any social media platform will have come across such questions. Those questions that make us kind of tilt our heads and go ‘huh?’.  Two of those questions that often make some atheists go ‘huh?’ are ‘If atheism is true…?’ and ‘Can you prove atheism?’.  When these two questions are posed by a theist we often see many atheists claim that the questions are malformed, or not representative of atheism and atheists. These questions might not be as malformed or as misrepresentative of atheism as some atheists think though.  This article will explore some of the more common responses to these two questions, and attempt to show why they are not as malformed or misrepresentative as some might think.

Is the question nonsensical?

One of the most common responses to these two questions is the best place to start, because this particular common response is at the heart of many atheists misconceptions about these kinds of questions.  Often we will hear an atheist respond to these kinds of questions with ‘atheism is just a lack of belief in gods’.  If the atheist responding believes this about atheism then it is understandable why they would think the question is malformed, or misrepresentative.  For those atheists the question ‘Can you prove atheism?’ is seen more along the lines of a question like ‘Can you prove that atheism exists?’ or ‘Can you prove a lack of belief in god?’.  If the atheist interprets the question in such a way, then we should not be surprised that the atheist finds the question nonsensical.

After all, it is no difficult task to show that atheism exists.  Atheists such as these define atheism as the mental state one has when they lack a belief in god(s).  There are people that have such mental states.  If there are people that have such mental states, then atheism exists.  We could get into a discussion here about theists that argue things like ‘everyone believes in God it is just that some just deny that belief’ and similar.  However, it is not a particularly interesting discussion.  The theists that make such claims and argument are just wrong, and are making bad claims and arguments.  People that do not believe in God exist, regardless of what bad apologetic arguments like that claim.

Not as nonsensical as it seems…

Questions like these may not be as nonsensical as those atheists believe though.  As stated, it is seen as nonsensical or malformed because of how those atheists define the term atheism.  They believe that atheism is ‘just a lack of belief in gods’, or that atheism is just ‘not being convinced a god exists’.  Another argument often put forward is that atheism ‘just talks about the lack of proof of existence of God’.  These are all common claims and arguments you will find from many atheists when questions like these arise, or when discussing what atheism is.  Many might also argue that it is misrepresenting or misunderstanding atheism to speak of it in any other terms.  However, understanding atheism as only those things is itself a misrepresentation or misunderstanding of atheism in and of itself too.

It may seem strange to hear it argued that some atheists can have a misunderstanding of atheism, or that some atheists can misrepresent atheism.  After all, who better to understand what atheism is than an atheist!  Yet, unfortunately, this is the case.  For atheism is not ‘just a lack of belief in gods’, and not just ‘not being convinced a god exists’.  Nor does atheism ‘just talk about the lack of proof of the existence of God’.  That is not to say that these things are not representative of atheism to some degree.  The fault does not come from saying that atheism incorporates these things, or that some atheists see atheism in this way.  No, the fault comes from saying that atheism is ‘just’ these things, for atheism is more than these things also.

Multiple types of atheism

For there is another definition of atheism, which is ‘the belief that God does not exist’.  This definition represents the idea that we exist in a God-less universe, and that no such being as God exists.  There is also a vast body of work that belongs in this account of atheism, one that talks about more than just ‘the lack of proof of the existence of God’.  It is in this account of atheism that we can find arguments against the probability of such a being existing, and arguments negating the claims made by Theism.  Here we find discussions concerning the Kalam Cosmological Argument, discussions about the problem of evil, discussions about problems with Divine Hiddenness, and much more.  Arguments for why we should not only not believe the claims made by Theism, but also why we should believe it is false. 

This ‘brand’ of atheism is a different response to Theism than the ‘brand’ of atheism mentioned above.  We can consider it something akin to the following.  Theism is the belief that the proposition ‘God exists’ is true, and it is also the body of works that support the proposition ‘God exists’.  This ‘brand’ of atheism being mentioned is the belief that the proposition ‘God exists’ is false.  In other words, this ‘brand’ of atheism is the belief that the opposite proposition, ‘God does not exist’, is true.  Just as Theism is also the body of works that argue for the proposition ‘God exists’, this brand of atheism is also the body of works that argue for the proposition ‘God does not exist’.  Whereas the ‘brand’ of atheism that discusses it in terms of ‘a lack of belief’, and talking about ‘the lack of proof of the existence of God’, is not speaking of it in terms of the proposition ‘God does not exist’.  This is often spoken of as ‘strong atheism’, while the other is often spoken of as ‘weak atheism’.  It may also be known in terms of ‘explicit atheism’ and ‘implicit atheism’.

Isn’t that definition wrong though?

There will, of course, be atheists arguing here that the definition of atheism as seen in ‘strong/explicit atheism’ is simply wrong.  Claiming that this definition of atheism is not representative of atheism, and is a misunderstanding of atheism.  However, as stated above, this is a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of atheism on the part of any atheist making these claims.  There are many articles here on Answers in Reason discussing the claims that certain definitions of atheism are ‘wrong’.  These will be linked at the end of this article for anyone wishing to further pursue these arguments.  Any atheist making these claims can also easily find information online that discusses the difference between ‘weak/implicit atheism’ and ‘strong/explicit atheism’.  However, we will leave arguments about which is right or wrong there.  For the purposes of this article though, it is enough to understand that there is more than one definition of atheism, and more than one kind of atheism.

atheism - lack belief definition

With this understanding about ‘strong/explicit atheism’ we can begin to understand why these two questions are not quite as nonsensical as some atheists might think.  Where under ‘weak/implicit atheism’ the question ‘Can you prove atheism?’ is interpreted as something like ‘Can you prove atheism exists?’ or ‘Can you prove a lack of belief in God?’, it is interpreted differently under ‘strong/explicit atheism’.  If atheism, under ‘strong/explicit atheism’, is the proposition ‘God does not exist’, then the question is instead interpreted as ‘Can you prove God does not exist?’.  Questions like ‘If atheism is true…?’ become ‘If it is true that God does not exist…?’.  As we can see, under the ‘strong/explicit atheism’ account, these questions are made sensible.

A different reading

So too are other claims that atheists come across similar to ‘Consciousness makes more sense under theism than under atheism’.  Claims like this are best understood as something akin to ‘Consciousness makes more sense in a universe created by God then in a God-less universe’.  It is understandable why those only aware of the ‘weak/implicit atheism’ position might find these claims nonsensical though.  After all, under that position the claim is understood as something like ‘Consciousness makes more sense under a belief in God then under a lack of belief in God’.  With atheists who only understand atheism in terms of the ‘weak/implicit atheism’ position questions and claims like these will seem nonsensical. 

There will be atheists who argue here that the questions and claims are nonsensical, because atheism just is ‘a lack of belief in gods’.  Atheism simply is the ‘weak/implicit atheism’ position.  Any other definitions are simply a misunderstanding of what atheism actually is.  This, as previously mentioned in the article, is itself a misunderstanding of atheism by those atheists.  As was also mentioned, atheism is also understood as ‘the belief God does not exist’ and the opposite proposition of Theism.  The links supplied at the bottom of this article go into detail about the various definitions of atheism, and the multiple ways it is used.  To argue that atheism simply is the ‘weak/implicit atheism’ position, and only that position, is to argue in error (the same could be said of the opposite stance too of course!).

A fuller understanding of atheism

A fuller understanding of what atheism is on the part of some ‘weak/explicit atheists’ would help in cases like these kinds of questions.  Understanding that atheism is also understood in the sense of ‘strong/explicit atheism’, and that it is not wrong to understand it in this way also, would allow them to apply the principle of charity in situations like these.  This kind of understanding would allow the ‘weak/explicit atheist’ to give the question its strongest reading, and the proper interpretation of what is being asked or claimed.  Rather than the misunderstanding and misinterpretation caused by only applying the ‘weak/implicit’ understanding of atheism.   There are a few things that should be expanded upon here before continuing.

The first thing to be expanded upon here is that the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of atheism from some ‘weak/implicit atheists’ is understandable.  Some may level the charge here that these misrepresentations from said ‘weak/implicit atheists’ are dishonest.  However, while there may be those that are being dishonest when they misrepresent what atheism is, some charity and understanding should be applied here.  Something that should be remembered is that many get their information on atheism from discussions with other atheists, in Facebook groups, from YouTube videos, and from places like American Atheists, The Atheist Experience, and people like Aron Ra.  For many this is where their ideas about atheism come from.

Misinformed, not dishonest…

Due to this many contemporary atheists honestly hold the belief that atheism is ‘just a lack of belief in gods’.  This is what is argued in many Facebook groups, on Twitter, in YouTube videos, and from people like those named above.  Many of the arguments made go as far as to say that any other definition of atheism besides the ‘lack of belief in gods’ definition is erroneous.  So not only are many of these atheists not familiar with the ‘belief God does not exist’ definition, but it has also been reinforced to them, and among them, that the latter definition is wrong.  Many honestly believe that any other interpretation of the term atheism besides ‘a lack of belief in gods’ is a dishonest misrepresentation of atheism.  So, it would be wrong here to claim that many atheists arguing this are being dishonest.  Many are simply unaware that there are other definitions, or have learned that any other definitions are wrong.

Many of them also do not look further into atheism beyond what they learn from other atheists on-line.  After all, they are learning these things from other atheists, and from people held up as authorities on what atheism is.  If they are learning these things from other atheists, and from people being held up as authorities on what atheism, then many will see no need to look beyond these.  Discussions about what the term ‘atheism’ means, or ought to mean, are to be found aplenty on-line.  These discussions often get very heated, with lines drawn in the sand by various supporters of the different definitions.  The arguments also become very tribal in nature.  This means the situation is more complicated than to allow for referring to those ‘weak/implicit atheists’ as being dishonest.  While many may be misrepresenting or misunderstanding atheism, not all of them are doing so with any particular agenda, or with any dishonesty.

It exists on both sides

The same can be said in reverse as well.  There are many that hold to the idea that only ‘strong/explicit atheism’ is the correct form of atheism.  It should be noted in this instance that there are both atheists and theists guilty of doing this.  The same holds true for them as it does for those ‘weak/implicit atheists’ mentioned above.  There may be those ‘strong/explicit atheists’ that do so because of an agenda, or because they are being dishonest.  However, just as the above ‘weak/implicit atheists’ are basing their judgements about the definition based on their experiences with atheists, and with the term atheism – so too is it with the ‘strong/explicit atheism’ definition.  They steadfastly hold to their definition because that is what they have come to learn and understand.  Some understanding and a little charity are needed by both groups when it comes to the term atheism.  Just as some understanding and a little charity needs to be applied to both groups from those discussing it with them.

Another thing to be noted here is that misunderstandings like this can be avoided simply by the theist using more precise and explicit language in these questions.  Rather than using the term atheism in the question, they could expand on what they mean in the question itself.  So, instead of asking ‘If atheism is true…?’ or ‘Can you prove atheism?’, the theist could ask ‘If it is true there is no God…?’ or ‘Can you prove there is no God?’.  Doing so will remove the ambiguity and misunderstandings that arise from using the term ‘atheism’.  As can be seen above, the term means a very different thing to the ‘weak/implicit atheist’ than it does to the ‘strong/explicit atheist’.  If the goal of the theist is to discuss the idea encompassed in the questions, then choice of words ought to be less important than the idea encompassed in the questions. 

Theists could be more precise…

While being more precise and explicit in the wording of the questions might avoid the misunderstanding and misinterpretation caused by the use of the word atheist, the theist might still find resistance from atheists with regards to the questions though.  This will be caused by the fact that the ‘weak/explicit atheist’ does not hold the belief that there is no God.  Nor do they, in most cases, argue that there is no God.  In these cases, the theist may find the conversation stalled, or halted before it begins.  Many atheists will apply a principle of charity to the questions and the questioner, and will discuss the ideas being proposed by the questions.  There are also many that will not though.  Perhaps further expanding upon the questions and the point of the conversation may help the theist in these cases, but it may not always be the case.  It wholly depends on the atheists being questioned.

In conclusion…

So, as can be seen, the questions themselves may not be as ‘linguistically quirky’ as some atheists might believe.  The questions might be even being misinterpreted by many atheists, and may not be asking the same thing that many atheists believe they are asking.  This is born of a misunderstanding of what atheism is on the part of those atheists.  However, as stated above, it is perfectly understandable why those atheists may be misinterpreting and misunderstanding what is being asked by questions like ‘If atheism is true…?’ and ‘Can you prove atheism?’.  For many atheists their only experience and understanding of the term is it being defined as ‘just a lack of belief in gods’.  In these cases, the theist should allow for a little understanding of this, and should also apply a little charity during the discussion.  After all, it is not just the atheist misunderstanding the term atheism here.  The theist too is not allowing for the fact that there are multiple definitions and understandings of the word ‘atheist’, and presupposing the ‘strong/explicit atheism’ position in the question.

The atheist too should allow for a little understanding and charity here too.  As the theist may only know the ‘strong/explicit atheism’ position as atheism, just as some atheists only know the ‘weak/implicit atheism’ position as atheism.  It could be suggested here as well that those atheists that only know the ‘weak/implicit atheism’ position could gain from expanding their knowledge of atheism.  Exploring the topic beyond Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and names like Aron Ra and Matt Dillahunty, can help solve misunderstandings like the ones caused by the questions mentioned in this article.  It also costs nothing to concede that atheism has multiple definitions and usages.  Acknowledging the existence of the ‘strong/explicit atheism’ position does not mean that it must be adopted.  Nor does discussing the kinds of questions discussed in this article.  Discussing the ideas encapsulated in them is not the same as acknowledging that they are correct, nor is it conceding the arguments.  It is, however, challenging the beliefs of the theist, and is that not a good thing?

Further Reading

Here is the list of further reading for those wanting to explore the definition of atheism in greater detail. These are all articles that we have written here, but there is a wealth of information out there for anyone wanting to expand their knowledge. The references listed at the end of many of the articles are also a good place to start.

Atheists, Atheism, and Ambiguity
Rockin’ Atheism Part 3: Atheism in Greek Antiquity
Rockin’ Atheism Pt 2: Defining Atheism
Words are funny things!
Descartes, Scepticism, and You
Coherent and Consistent Beliefs
Fresh AiR – S01:E01 – Atheism and Atheists
Changing A Mind: Respect Matters

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Atheism and Agnosticism