There are some people that like to claim the lack of belief, or absence of belief, definition of atheism is the most common one.
I contest that, whilst it is common on social media due to political parties like the American Atheists and American YouTube shows like The Atheist Experience, it isn’t that common outside of the internet and certain circles in America.
Ways to Discuss Atheism
Atheism is polysemous. That means there are many definitions. With the way language works no definition is wrong, but there are some definitions that might have more utility or are more logically sound.
Atheism can be seen as (but is not limited to):
- The claim/proposition/belief god or gods do not exist
- A considered response to the proposition of theism where one either (actively) does not believe in gods or believes gods do not exist.
- Not believing in a particular god or set of gods
- Any person that is not a theist
- Behaving in a certain way that is not in accordance with a particular religion
- Any being that is not a theist
- Any thing that is not a theist
People have different reasons for using various definitions, but in many cases, it simply comes down to “my in-group says.”
I’m an Atheist
As an atheist myself, I believe gods do not exist. I see atheism as the proposition gods do not exist. Before we continue on I figure we should cover off why I see atheism this way.
Why is Atheism a Proposition?
Theism is commonly defined as the belief (at least one) god exists. For short, let’s just use God exists with the understanding I am speaking of at least one god.
An -ism is a concept, philosophy, system, practice etc. It is not an active belief like you would find in a human. Therefore, the definition ‘belief God exists’ is talking about something believed, rather than an active belief itself. In other words, it speaks to the propositional content of the belief. Therefore, theism is more accurately constructed as the proposition (or p) God exists.
A proposition is a truth-apt bivalent statement or claim, it can be true or false. Therefore it can be p or ¬p.
So, if p is true, then God exists.
If p is not true (aka false), then ¬p is true.
If ¬p is true then God does not exist.
The a- prefix in atheism ought to be understood as not, as in negation.
If ¬ = not = a-
and p = theism
then ¬p = atheism
It makes sense if theism is an ontological proposition, then atheism is one too rather than a mere psychological state. There are a number of different types of non-theist just like there a number of different types of theist.
Also, if the -ism is a mere psychological state ‘the lack of belief in gods’ and the -ist is a mere psychological state ‘the lack of belief in gods’ then atheism and atheist are no different and essentially folks that define it this way are ‘an atheism’. (Sounds silly right?)
I don’t really care how you want to use atheism for yourself, though I do find the lack of belief definition a bit silly.
What I do mind is when atheists claim one (or all of) the following:
– it (the lack of belief definition) is the only definition.
– that other definitions are wrong.
– that the lack of belief definition is the same as the not believing definition.
– that the lack of belief definition is the most common one (based purely on their insular circles).
– that anyone (or sometimes anything) that lacks a belief in gods is an atheist.
– that anyone using atheism to be more than a lack of belief is “talking about something else”.
– that anyone that thinks atheism is anything else needs to “learn what atheism is”.
^Statements like those last two seem quite arrogant. Imagine telling your doctor to learn what painkillers were, or that a qualified plumber had no clue how to install a tap. Perhaps one relatable to internet conversations, like a creationist arrogantly telling a scientist (or well-learned person on the topic) to “learn what evolution is” because they think their colloquial understanding from their in-group trumps all the academic work on evolution.
As I mentioned, I don’t really care about your preferred use, and I am sure you can justify why you prefer it without using any of those statements above. What I’d like to explain is how these statements seem to fall on their face when examined with any rigour.
Outside of the Net
Most people, at least those I have spoken to directly or by extension, who do not debate online outside of America see atheism as the belief or proposition gods do not exist.
There have been a few that did define as it a does not believe in gods, and when I asked them if they meant they believed gods do not exist they said “yeah, what’s the difference”
Obviously, I can note some differences, but the average person I spoke to used does not believe in gods to mean believe gods do not exist.
With the exception of folks that debated online, this was the common definition used, and whilst this data set is largely anecdotal I have asked other friends to do the same in their local and the dataset was largely the same.
I think if anyone outside of places like America (and maybe Canada) asked these 3 questions to people they meet they would get a clear picture.
a. Are you an atheist?
b. Do you debate online?
c. What does atheism mean?
You’d start to build a pretty clear picture, though there will be outliers.
Now, even if you’re still reeling at this anecdote, please note there are around 15 more points on this, so it is just one aspect. This article should be seen as a cumulative effort to demonstrate commonality, not individual points. I’d agree if only one point was being made, it could largely be discounted.
Here are a few screenshots of conversations I’ve had when speaking about this in the past with friends over WhatsApp. It is only a small slither of the data set as most of the conversations were verbal, but you can at least see some of the responses. Not all of them hold to the same definition of atheism as the proposition/belief gods do not exist, and there was one that held to anything that doesn’t believe in gods was an atheist, though he wasn’t sure where he learned that definition from.
If this is such a common thing, why was there only one in the data set that held to atheism as a mere lack of belief? Whilst most of my research was verbal on this and done over the last few years through conversations with people at work and the like, he is actually the only person from the ‘real world’ that defined atheism this way. Obviously, I am asking for your trust here that this is the only person who has said it to me. I am sure there will be more, especially if you speak to folks in the US for example. My experience of speaking to people from Europe is akin to the above.
Even shows in America, e.g. community, understand atheism and Agnosticism to be different positions (and joke an agnostic is just a weak atheist, or more rightly, the lazy atheist) thus showing the atheist is not a mere absence of belief in these circles either.
Plenty of other shows, including others in America, do not use atheism as a mere lack of belief either.. look at House and all the strong statements he made about religion or god, that isn’t a mere lack of belief:
Most academic works that contain atheism (even by atheists) use atheism as the belief or proposition god or gods do not exist.
There are a few that have tried to change it over the years, e.g. Flew in 72, to does not believe as “negative atheism” and the standard definition to “positive atheism” – he acknowledges in his work the standard definition and that he is trying to change it. Flint too had ideas around how atheism should be defined some years prior. There have always been a few breaking away from the “norm” but their use was not always well supported. Thus, at least in academic works, there is a common definition of atheism even if they do acknowledge other definitions that exist.
Most academic works will be explicit in how they are using the terminology these days. Rockin’ Atheism Pt 2: Defining Atheism. I think this is the most important thing, because when we think about it – the label is far less important than what we mean, right? It would just be useful if everyone meant the same thing.
Absence of Belief in Academic Works?
I’m not sure any serious academic works use the absence of belief in deities definition, though I did read one that acknowledged some atheists defined it that way.
Most seem to use the proposition or belief gods do not exist, some do use does not believe though this is much less common. I’ve noted in a few articles the works of folks like Robert Flint and Anthony Flew on their idea of atheism. Not once did they utter ‘a lack of belief in gods’.
The Difference between Does Not Believe and Absence of Belief
There is a difference between does not believe and an absence of belief that really shouldn’t need explaining, but many use absence when they mean does not. Belief: Don’t Believe, Lack of Belief, Absent of Belief.
This problem too is replicated with folks understanding, as they see ‘does not believe’ and ‘lack of belief’ as exactly the same thing. Atheists, Atheism, and Ambiguity.
Cosmic Skeptic, through his studies at university, has realised the issues with the lack of belief definition of atheism folks use online and how it is not a common one used in academic literature.
He notes the issues with theism being defined as a proposition (or the propositional content of a belief) and atheism purely as a psychological state):
Equally, he isn’t saying people cannot use it another way, he’s just saying he has had his eyes opened to why it happens to be generally used that way. Unfortunately, this has been met with hostility by people who prefer the lack of belief definition and they are too busy arguing against what they think he has said to actually listen to what he is saying.
Look for atheist philosophers like Oppy
[should check his books and papers too, some great arguments against theism] and Draper and see how they define atheism.. yup, not lack of belief definition.
And there is a tonne of other papers you can check out on the matter too, sure, you can quote mine and find the odd one that uses atheism differently, but that’s no different to an anti-vaxxer searching Google through a million results to find one that says vaccines cause autism.
Issues with the lack of belief definition
There’s a tonne of issues with the lack of belief definition… Vague, ambiguous, relies on contradiction or special pleading. You can find a few of them here: Definitional Problems with Lacking Belief
And you can find a few more here: https://greatdebatecommunity.com/2021/04/15/atheism-theism-and-agnosticism-square-of-opposition-and-semantic-collapse-short-version/
What Else is Defined Purely by ONE thing it Lacks?
We never (or at least very rarely) define anything purely on one thing it lacks.. e.g. a bald person isn’t simply one that lacks hair, it’s often because they don’t have the ability to grow hair which in turn is due to hormones or similar.
Ontology and the things we lack…
What About Other Types of Non-Theist?
There are a large number of other ontological/epistemological positions that clearly describe what one does and does not believe, referring to all non-theists as atheists is like referring to all non-Americans as Brits.
Theist/Atheist is not a dichotomy. Theist and non-theist is. From there you have types of theist and type of non-theist. Of course, I can understand how we get to this point. If you don’t see any difference between a non-theist and an atheist then you will be stuck in this dichotomy. Hopefully, though, you can at least see there are some things that are not a theist that you also wouldn’t class as an atheist. Perhaps, then, you can start to reason if there are some things that don’t fit the umbrella of non-theist = atheist, then other things might too?
Etymology of Atheism
Many who use atheism as this lack of belief definition do so because of a poor etymological understanding. Referring to atheos They say “it literally means without gods” – well the French pomme de terre literally translates to “apple of ground” but it means potato.
The same can be said for atheos. Originally it was used for those that were godforsaken… They were without the gods because they had lost the support of the gods not because they didn’t believe in them.
It then was used for those that didn’t believe in the gods of the state, but they could still be theists, e.g. Christians were regarded as atheos.
Language also changes and evolves over time so holding on to this understanding of atheism is both 1. Wrong because you got the original use wrong and 2. An etymological fallacy anyway.
This article goes through the history of atheism and the definitions throughout the years, the earliest I found “absence of belief” used in a dictionary was 1948: Etymology vs Use/Definition: Atheism.
Dictionaries are descriptive, which is why you’ll find the lack of belief definition quite commonly in internet dictionaries but not so much in university dictionaries.
The funny thing is that atheists that tend to care so much about academic rigour when it comes to science seem to suddenly not care when it suits them.
Interestingly, a friend recently went through a number of online dictionaries that used the “lack of belief” definition and switched the languages. He found that only in English was the lack of belief definition mentioned. There were two main definitions, the belief gods do not exist and not believing in God or gods. Another anecdote, I know, but you can verify this one for yourself.
Gods are Delusions/Imaginary
Many who claim to only lack belief also make statements like gods are imaginary or are delusions.
What is something imaginary? Something existing only in the mind, without an objective reality and therefore does not exist.
What is a delusion? A delusion is an idiosyncratic belief or impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument, typically as a symptom of a mental disorder. This is not only a claim that gods are imaginary but that there is evidence that contradicts their existence and that the person who believes in them is suffering a mental disorder.
Do either of these sound like a mere lack of belief?
The poor understanding of words like “atheism” and “agnosticism”, along with a weak understanding of things like “knowledge” has led to the rise of superfluous/nonsensical terms like agnostic atheism.
- Agnostic Atheism – CMT – Vol: 13
- What is Agnosticism? How does it relate to knowledge and beliefs?
- Rockin’ Atheism Pt 2: Defining Atheism
- Atheists, Atheism, and Ambiguity
Babies as Atheists
Babies cannot consider the proposition of god’s existence nor hold beliefs in regard it, they simply do not understand. Even if you do go with the lack of belief definition it ought to still be a response to theism, babies cannot respond. Are we Born Atheist?
Atheists (often) claim to be logical/rational people, or that atheism is a rational position. So, what does it mean to be rational? Rationality is, at least in part, reasoning using the rules of logic and probability theory whilst holding coherent and consistent beliefs.
That means if we want to be rational, we ought to use the rules of logic. What Does it Mean to Be Logical?
There is a specific type of logic called propositional logic, therefore when considering the proposition “God exists” we ought to use propositional logic as part of our reasoning: You won’t believe this… (Logic and Belief).
As the lack of belief definition doesn’t fully answer the proposition “God exists” it is not a rational answer to the said proposition. Therefore, if one claims to be rational, perhaps the lack of belief definition is not the one that ought to be used, at least in this context.
Whilst not every point above actually demonstrated commonality, some highlighted issues with the lack of belief definition. This in turn is why, at least within academia or folks who have taken the time to think about it more, there is a less vague definition used than the conflation of non-theism to atheism. The more concise definition of atheism is often considered the normative definition: So what is this ‘Normative’ thing all about anyway?
I think it is fair to say that it isn’t actually the common definition of atheism, though through folks with political agendas like the AA and the ACA the lack of belief definition is becoming ever more popular in America and the internet. As increasingly more people are on the internet it could end up becoming the common definition in the real world too. Even if it does become the most common one, does that make it the clearest or most logical use?
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what definition you use as long as you are specific about your use. The problem comes when you tell others they are using a word wrong when, in fact, that statement is in itself wrong.
One more thing to consider though is, what is the purpose of communication? In short, it is an exchange of information between parties. If someone uses the specific ontological/epistemological positions such as ignostic, agnostic, atheist etc then I can accurately infer what they do and don’t believe about the proposition ‘God Exists’. If folks use the lack of belief definition, all we know about your position is that you ‘lack belief’ and seeing as many even are confused about what they mean by lack, it can be hard to know exactly what they mean.
Posts About Atheism
- Rockin’ Atheism Part 3: Atheism in Greek Antiquity
- Rockin’ Atheism Pt 2: Defining Atheism
- Etymology vs Use/Definition: Atheism
- New Atheism and New Atheists w/ Ozymandias Ramses II [Video]
- New Atheism and New Atheists w/ Ozymandias Ramses II [Podcast]
- “If atheism is true…”
- Atheists, Atheism, and Ambiguity
- In response to Ra’s ‘What is Atheism?’
- Pitfalls of ‘New Atheism’
- Has Atheism Become an Ideology?
- Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism
- Do we Atheists have a Burden of Proof?
- Are we Born Atheist?
- Ontology and the things we lack… (lacktheism or rocktheism?)
- Philosophy in The Atheist Community – SciPhi
- Do Non-Theists Live as Atheists?
- Atheism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Atheism and Agnosticism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
- Defining Atheism and the Burden of Proof (Acedemia.edu)
- Normatively Atheist
- On the definition of atheism (By Philip Müller)
- Rockin’ Atheism Pt. 1: The Wrongness of Aron Ra